Cup of Gold

"The sea was a round lake of quiet undulation, spread with a silken skin. Slowly, slowly, passing to rearward, the water set up a pleasant hypnosis in the brain. It was like looking into a fire... There is a peace in the tropic oceans which passes a desire for understanding. Destination is no longer an end, but only to be sailing, sailing, out of the kingdom of time."

John Steinbeck was a 27-year-old aspiring writer when his first novel, Cup of Gold, was published in 1929. Supporting himself on money earned as a laborer, a journalist, and a caretaker, he had visited Panama several years earlier and likely drew on some of his own experiences while penning this romanticized biography of Sir Henry Morgan. And yet, passages like that above still resonate 80 years later. In spite of spending such a short time in and around the isthmus between North and South America, he described this part of the world with convincing detail. For all of his determined effort and raw young talent, he received a $250 advance from his publisher, Robert M. McBride & Company.

I wasn't familiar with the book when I started planning my trip to the country this winter, but I happened upon a paperback copy at Idlewild Books and bought it on a whim. Reading it on the Pacific island of Taboga a few weeks ago, I learned something about Panama's piratical past and rediscovered an author I hadn't paid much attention to since high school. Add this book to your beach reading list now—especially if the stretch of sand you have your eye on happens to be an hour-long ferry ride from Panama City.

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