The hostel I’d booked in Casco Viejo in Panama City was hot, dark, and musty — central, as advertised, and cheap, as expected. In the tiny bathroom, Ben and I had to climb over the toilet to get to the shower. Shower was not an entirely accurate description, since there was no spigot, just a hole in the wall where the water dribbled out, and we had to press ourselves flat against the tiles to try to get wet. These were not tiles you wanted to press yourself against, so the darkness was a bonus.
I didn’t really mind the lack of showerhead, the creaking, rusty fan, or the lumpy bed. Who’d want to be stuck indoors when we could be exploring together outside in the sun? We bought salty empanadas in the alleys and cold bottles of Balboa beer. Ben and I toured the towering locks of the Panama Canal, dove murky shipwrecks off both coasts, and visited the empty, powder-white beaches and sweltering, tangled mangroves in the San Blas Islands.
One afternoon, we went for a walk around Casco Viejo’s crumbling colonial streets, and Ben spotted a row of white stucco arches in the sunshine: Andean Grand Hotel in gold lettering, with five stars. “Finally,” he said, grinning and charging up the steps without another word. But he returned moments later, with a crumpled expression. Turned out it wasn’t actually a hotel, but a film set for the next James Bond. This was 2008. I was used to traveling on a shoestring. Ben — not so much.
For more than a decade, I’d traveled and lived all over the world. I’d grown up in California, but after my PhD studying Australian sea lions, I taught marine ecology in the Bahamas and a course on killer whales in the San Juan Islands; I had worked as a science writer in Washington, DC, and as a marine mammal biologist on ships in Antarctica. I could and did go anywhere — the Inca Trail, Borneo, Tasmania, the Amazon — for as cheap and as long as possible. I loved the unexpectedness, the freedom.
I’d also fallen for boys all over the world. I loved their accents, the unknown. I’d dated Australians, New Zealanders, a South African, a Frenchman. My brother, a real homebody, kept asking, “Would it kill you, Shan, just once, to go for a Californian?”
I met Ben during my second season in Antarctica in 2007. He was from London and had quit his job at IBM to do a degree in polar studies before becoming an assistant expedition leader on the same ship I was working on. Ben was particularly British. He wore sweaters (“jumpers,” to him), drank tea, and said things like “Toodle-oo.” He was tall with hazel eyes and glasses, and he made me laugh.
We continued to travel — fellow adventurers — to Uruguay, Cuba, India, and Bhutan. We worked on ships in Arctic Canada and Greenland, eating frozen arctic char and muktuk, and cross-country-skied around scientific bases and remote campsites in the 24-hour sun on the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica.
At the end of 2009, we took a train from London to York for the wedding of one of Ben’s best friends from college. I was 35, and we’d been together almost two years. I’d always wanted kids and had just gone off the pill. Ben agreed but didn’t feel the pressure of the clock as I did. He was less enthusiastic, less certain.
Our first afternoon in York, Ben and I sat together in a Starbucks and drank lattes as it snowed within the ancient stone walls of the city. I loved him. I wanted us both to be happy. So we came up with a plan.