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2000 Expedition Journals
We have received special permission to paddle the homeland of the Kuna people on the Caribbean coast of Panama and we can only do it now. The Kuna people are fiercely independent and proud people who successfully staged a revolution against the Panamanian government in the early 1920’s. Since then their homeland, a long string of gorgeous islands along the coast, has been an autonomous region. They are very strict with visitors. Only a few islands have hotels and a few allow visits from cruise ships and sailboats. People may visit villages during daylight, but unless you’re in an official hotel, no overnight stays are permitted. There is one exception; one guy (more about him later) runs kayaking tours along with a few Kuna families. There are three per year and we are on the third and final one. We join the tour for nine days and then paddle around for a month with a Kuna guide, just the three of us.
For this tour we will have to use the old foldable kayaks. We have already paddled over 2000 miles in them and they’re leaky and creaky but they’ll hold up, maybe. We pack them on a tiny Cessna and fly over to one of the islands from Panama City with all our gear. What that means is that we must now drive over 500 miles from San Jose, Costa Rica to Panama City.
The plane wobbles and then punches out of the bank of clouds and the view that opens up below us makes my jaw go slack. There are dozens of islands sprinkled offshore of the mainland. From my perspective at 6,000 feet, it appears that I could use them as stepping-stones and walk all the way to Colombia without getting my feet wet.
The Cessna four-seater is the smallest plane I have ever flown in. Everything feels more intimate and interactive; it makes up for the lack of comfort. The plane is stuffed with our gear: the two disassembled Feathercrafts, camping gear, photo gear in big Pelican cases, a small mountain of food, etc. We have reached the cargo weight limit for the plane and part of me worries about the short-field landing. Wind currents and updrafts shove the plane around as we fly. In my mind it feels like we have only slightly more control over our direction than dandelion fluff in a whirlwind. And when we swing down and fly over them on our way to Tigre I start to worry more. They’re tiny.
Tigre appears in front of us and we circle around the far side to line up with the runway. The community built the asphalt strip without consideration of prevailing wind patterns. We must glide in at minimal airspeed and perform a crab landing. The wind comes at an angle of 2:00 and we face into it and drift sideways toward the runway. At the last instant the pilot straightens it out and we touch down. I am amazed at how little room a Cessna needs to land, less than 200 yards.
A small patch of palm trees and three thatched cabanas just off the runway is our base camp. We meet up with our friend Scott and his tour group. We will accompany his group for a week before heading out on our own with his Kuna guide Nemessio. Habit takes over and our curiosity is consumed by our routine of setting up the boats and organizing equipment. After nearly three years, it is automatic. Nothing else happens until the gear and boats are ready to go. It is early afternoon by the time we even think about taking a tour of the village.
In Kuna communities, there is very strict protocol you must follow as a visitor. We are all “waga” or outsiders who must respect the local laws. First priority for us is a meeting with the Sayla, the senior chief, in the communal meeting house. He sits in a hammock in a clearing in the center. The lesser chiefs sit on surrounding benches and we all crowd onto a bench just across from him while Scott and Nemessio the Kuna guide/translator explain the purpose and make-up of our tour. We each introduce ourselves individually to the chief, shake his hand and receive a slight nod of recognition. I can’t tell if he is overwhelmed or underwhelmed. He seems quite old, frail, wrinkled. His facial features are elf-like and his eyes belie little reaction. There is a very powerful energy in the room and most of us feel self-conscious and a little uncomfortable. We don’t know if we should smile or remain serious. It is explained to us that the Kuna were once feared warriors who dominated the Embera and other indigenous tribes in the area. Even the strong-arm tactics of the Spanish and later Panamanian government failed to subordinate them. We learn that the next day is the 76th anniversary of the Kuna revolution. In a quick and bloody strike, in the spring of 1925 they gained their independence from the young Panamanian government. The Kuna Yala has been an autonomous province ever since. One of the lesser chiefs beams with pride and tells us that we are welcome to attend a dramatic reenactment of the revolution and join in the celebrations the next day. The Sayla once again, nods wisely.
I go to bed marveling at the strategic thinking and organization that these people have put into the establishment of a nation and the preservation of a way of life. Most people know this area as the San Blas archipelago the home of Kuna Indians and source of the beautiful mola art, and that’s about it. In one afternoon I have seen so much more. There are no roads into the region. There is little police and military presence. You must fly or sail into the Kuna Yala (Land of the Kuna) and you do so on their terms. Their land, fish, water, food, faces (for photos), art and all aspects of their way of life are resources for which, as an outsider, you must pay. It’s only fair. It’s very much the American or European way, to fight for what you believe in and for what you deserve. I find myself excited in anticipation of a lesson in Kuna history the next day.
The fighting starts as soon as we began to pack up and load the kayaks to leave. We walk quickly across the airstrip and into the center of town on the other side of the island to see what’s happening. The town square is a packed dirt courtyard that is framed by three houses and opens up onto the cement pad of the main dock. We arrive to see three Panamanian military police savagely beat a ragged Kuna youth and drag him off to jail. Two other young men lounging in the square are rounded up and similarly assaulted with sticks and rifle butts. Dozens of onlookers jeer, and yell at the soldiers. Looking on from a short distance, we can smell the tension and the fear, pungent like gasoline. One more spark and the whole situation will erupt. Groups of children look on agape, wide-eyed and confused.
That’s what we are supposed to feel watching this reenactment, and truthfully it is very powerful. The entire town turns out every year on the anniversary of the 1925 Revolution as it is the most important historical event in the modern history of the Kuna nation. It is graphic, realistic, and replayed in real time, lasting well over two hours from start to finish. It is for the children and for future generations so that they never forget. It is for pride.
It is crucial to know some of the history of the Kuna people to appreciate what we see. The few tourists in the crowd seem impressed but appear not to understand the full significance of the reenactment.
For the past 500 years, the San Blas Islands, or the Kuna Yala (Land of the Kuna) as they are now officially known, has been the homeland of the Kuna people. They migrated from the Darien jungle area of eastern Panama and western Colombia soon after the arrival of the first Spanish conquistadors. Among other indigenous groups in Panama they have reputations as strong warriors, intelligent strategists and fiercely proud, independent people. During the 18th and 19th centuries the island archipelago was a stopping place for trade ships and pirates who traded for fish and coconuts from the Kuna. The Spanish trade routes bringing gold from Peru and the Andes on the Pacific side crossed mainland Panama just east of the Kuna Yala and that brought more and more attention to the area. Thus there was always a military presence in the Kuna Yala which in turn generated more and more resentment among the Kuna.
When Panama gained its independence from Colombia the young Panamanian government tried to maintain control of the Kuna Yala. More missionaries and military police were sent to Kuna communities. This agitated Kuna political, cultural and religious leaders and set the stage for an insurgence. The Kuna congress secretly contacted the American government to request that the American military act as a watchdog over their independence movement. The Americans agreed and parked a destroyer off of the archipelago. The Kuna congress planned the revolution to coincide with Carnaval, knowing that soldiers would be incapacitated by drink. And starting in El Tigre and continuing along the archipelago, in swift attacks they killed and captured all the Panamanian soldiers and declared their independence. Since 1925 the Kuna Yala has been an autonomous “comarca”, a department, as part of the Republic of Panama.
The climax of the reenactment is abrupt and violent. The policemen are played by half a dozen of the largest young men in the village. They stagger through the square as if drunkenly celebrating Carnaval and are set upon by a small mob wielding sticks, machetes and guns. Two are imprisoned and four are kicked, beaten and hacked into submission. The “dead” bodies are dumped ceremoniously into the water off the end of the dock. The crowd cheers. Elders sitting near the children give them a final few emphatic words and the children smile and join in the celebration.
It is a happy and proud moment and the players seem very glad we have participated in the event. We are encouraged to take photos (a rare thing in the Kuna Yala, where all photos cost money) with the actors. Various overzealous young men and wizened elders come up to us to make sure we have understood what we have witnessed. We can’t help but feel inspired by it all and impressed by its energy and authenticity. Yet ultimately we are overcome by a very powerful feeling that we are outsiders, here on their terms, privileged participants, and not welcome any deeper. It’s the Kuna Yala, Land of the Kuna. It’s their land, nobody tells them what to do with it and it’s going to stay that way.
Nubesibudup. The name sounds like a big hiccup and a burp. The language of the Kuna is full of p´s, b´s, o´s and u´s. It sounds like nothing I have ever heard. In the past few days we have paddled to and camped on islands with the following names: Ogopsibudup, Esnatupile and Chichirtupu. Say that list three times fast. I challenge you.
It’s much hotter here than I imagined and if not for the wind we would fry. The sunrise forces you out of bed in the morning, not just because it is beautiful but because it raises the temperature in your tent. By 7:00 it’s already a sauna. By 9:30 you’re already looking for a shady spot and by noon you make sure that spot is on the windward side of the island to take advantage of the cooling Caribbean trade winds.
Our paddling with the folks on Scott’s tour has been very relaxed for the past week. As well, they have a gear boat, a motorized wooden skiff, and we are paddling empty boats, something we haven’t done in three years, since our training in Thailand. So far we have met only a few Kuna families and we’re anxious to get started with our documentary work. For the folks on the tour, they came to paddle a tropical island paradise and get a few doses of culture. It’s quite the opposite for us. It’s bit sad when I think about it, that we have become numb to turquoise waters, coconut palms and secluded, breezy isles. We want to spend time with the people.
There are many islands to choose from and nearly all have beautiful camping spots. Most are uninhabited and are used as coconut farms. The caretakers spend a few days out on these islands each month gathering coconuts and fishing. If they see us land, they come out to say hello, collect a “users fee” of 1$ per person and try to sell us molas. They are friendly but there is no mistaking that they are business people, smart and aggressive ones too.
In the afternoon we have a very lucky encounter with two fishermen. They see our kayaks on the beach and head towards us in their wooden sailing canoe. As they get closer we see that the hull is carved from a solid length of tree trunk, the sail is a triangle of cloth spread between two long sticks and even though the boat seems heavily loaded it moves with surprising efficiency. They have been diving along a section of reef most of the day and have a boat full of treasures. We drool as we look in and quickly start negotiations to purchase our dinner. Five minutes later we are carrying a trio of king crabs and a large barracuda back to our campsite. The legs of the crabs alone are nearly two feet long.
One of the young boys of the caretaker family climbs a palm to get coconuts. Much to the surprise of the guests on the tour, Jean-Philippe matches him on the neighboring tree. We cook a mountain of coconut juice. We boil the crabs in seawater and we sit down with our hosts for a feast as the sun sets over the mainland. Our new friends sit down with us and we start an eating frenzy, ripping open shells, pulling out the meat, splattering ourselves with the juices.
Nemessio ends the evening with a story from Kuna mythology on the celestial origins of the traditional mola art form. In many Kuna tales there are references to extraterrestrial visits. This story tells of one of the most important.
Four women from the stars visit the Kuna Yala and are taken captive by four brothers. Three escape, but the youngest, most beautiful one can’t get away. She and the youngest brother fall in love and marry. Due to her otherworldly ancestry, she possesses great skills and artistry with fabrics and embroidery. She is the original teacher of mola textile art. The whole story is brought alive by a member of the tour group Erik, a gregarious and entertaining Norwegian-Italian banker with a New York accent to whom we have become very close. He spins a masterful tale, loosely translating and embellishing Nemessio’s words and we head to our tents with bellies full of good food and laughter.
Nothing reveals more about a people and their culture more than a graveyard. One glimpse gives you a profound understanding of religion, society, family structure and economy. How the dead are buried, what marks the site, what decorations adorn it, how the graves are arranged, and how the local people act while there, all speak volumes. Wherever I am in the world, whenever I visit a cemetery I am overwhelmed. It’s as if I have instantly uploaded a huge anthropological database and I can’t process it all.
In the morning Nemessio and Vicente bring us over to the mainland to visit a Kuna burial ground. Scott and others have made comments in passing that have piqued my interest. Hammocks, shelters, tools, furniture and personal effects somehow come into play in Kuna burial rites. I ask many questions but get only vague answers. “It’s fascinating. Just wait so you can see and judge for yourself,” I am told. The thickly wooded shoreline gives no hint of what lies beyond, heightening my anticipation.
We jump lightly out of the wooden skiff as soon as it bumps up on shore, and I still don’t know what to expect. I have been watching Nemessio and Vicente’s body language for clues as to how serious and important this excursion is, but I get none. They wear neither severe expressions on their faces nor do they comport themselves with the kind of slow deliberation that denotes reverence and respect. Rather the opposite, they are jaunty and excited to show us. And with few words of introduction they head up a narrow path through the trees.
After a five-minute walk we pop out into an opening. In place of gravestones, crosses or anything else I have ever seen, there are what appear to be about 100 mini-shelters, most are thatched roofed, some are corrugated tin and a few are plastic. A handful of them have fallen in. Each one is a burial site, usually for more than one person. All of them are furnished with a collection of items, as if they were inhabited. I see tools, cookware, bowls and plates, tables, chairs, bottles, etc. Most of them are useful items, mundane things, but every site has a couple eclectic pieces that catch your eye. I see a fedora, a pair of fancy leather shoes, pieces of a painted boat hull, a collection of photographs stapled to a board, a pinstriped shirt, a painting. . .I look to Nemessio for an explanation. He anticipates my question and answers before I ask. Those items are symbols of that person, things that were important to them in their lives or synonymous with their character, work or identity. They are things their spirits might miss if they were absent. The last thing the Kuna want is for the spirits of their dead to be restless and disturbed. They should be placated and have all they need in the cemetery, otherwise every night there would be problems.
Vicente explains that there is one thing you never do, go to a Kuna graveyard at night. They rise and inhabit the burial site and use all of those everyday items. They sit in the chairs and use the tables, bowls, cookware, etc., and it’s best to leave them be.
Vicente smiles when I ask what would happen if some of the living disturbed the spirits of the dead when they were up carousing at night. I get no answer but from his expression I know it can’t be good.
Nemessio and Vicente have been holding out on us. They let us look around and marvel at the different burial sites, all the while saving the best part for last. Just as it seems that we have seen everything there is to see, they tell us about the method of entombment. It would have never occurred to me that it is different. There is no coffin, there is no mummification, there is no embalming, there are no ashes, there is no open burial, but there is a hammock. They dig a pit, like a chamber and place a timber or branch across it lengthwise and string a hammock from each end. After placing the body in the hammock, they construct a ceiling above it and then cover the whole thing over with dirt. The Kuna dead sleep in the afterlife, hanging and swinging, as they did in the living world.
Many denominations of the Christian church have tried to make inroads in the Kuna Yala for a long time but it is nice to see that the old traditions and beliefs hold sway. In reading one of the accounts of Kuna history I recall a situation back in the early 1900’s, a confrontation between a catholic missionary and a Kuna Sayla (chieftan). The priest was frustrated over his inability to convert many of the Kuna and especially distraught over what he perceived as savage practices—the dances, shamanistic spiritual healing, traditional puberty ceremonies for young women, and clothing among other things—and he started a tirade one day against a Sayla. Essentially he said that if the Kuna didn’t heed God and show respect by changing their ways that they would be damned and go to hell. The chief calmly replied, “Hell is for you wagas (foreigners) we are going to see our Great Father and be with our ancestors.” The graveyards are testimony to the strength of those convictions.
On our way out Nemessio points out something else that for me is richly symbolic. Up above the graveyard is a watershed that has been developed into a hygienic water source. It’s very complete with a cement, gravel-filled filtration tank and buried CVC piping leading all the way down to the beach, into the ocean and over to the island two miles away. It’s the result of one of Jimmy Carter’s third-world rural development projects Scott tells me. Yet what I notice is that it runs right down the path through the cemetery. I like the idea that the community’s aquifer lies just by the final resting place of their ancestors, that the essence of life is fortified by the spirits of the dead. It gives new meaning to the cliché, “It’s all in the water.”
All of our paddling in the Kuna Yala has been very easy, UNTIL TODAY! We have been moving westward through the archipelago, stopping at various deserted islands to camp and at villages to do our photo-documentaries and the whole time the wind has helped us. It comes from the east this time of year and for the past two weeks it has provided a nice tailwind. Now that we are against it we truly feel its power.
We stoke out of the protected backside of the island in the late morning. Our tardy departure is our first mistake. The wind is softer around dawn and we should have left then. At 11:00 AM it is honking right in our faces. I turn towards Jean-Philippe with a look that says, “Can’t we just stay here today?” Yet we have made promises to Nemessio and Vicente and their families and we must go back to their villages of Carti and Mulatupu. Little whitecaps break over the bows of our kayaks, the spray hits us in the face. Fishermen, heading home after a full morning of work, go by in the opposite direction under full sail in their Cayucos. They nod and give us a look of pity as if to say, “poor dumb wagas (foreigners). They know nothing of the wind.” Hours later we arrive in Mulatupu exhausted.
Vicente’s family is ready for us. The women in his family are beautiful, perfect subjects for photos. Many of the Kuna people have soft round features and stout upper bodies. In historical accounts they were often described as “barrel-chested warriors.” And as they are generally a very short people, many seem oddly proportioned. Vicente’s mom, his two aunts, four sisters and grandmother are all lean and long-limbed with high cheekbones and angular features. They are a fiesta of colors in their best mola blouses, red and yellow bandanas and leg wrappings of woven beads. Over an hour and a half we take 10 rolls of film of them at work: carrying water, pressing juice from sugar cane, sewing molas and cooking. The picture of the day is of Vicente’s 85-year-old great-grandmother. She sits on a stump in the brightest, most delicately sewn mola of them all, and looks up at us. Her leathery face is full of deep lines. She puffs on a pipe while peeling the skins off yucca root in preparation for dinner and nods her head, as if incredulous that anyone would want to take photos of her.
We will sleep in the house of Nemessio’s sister in Carti, the neighboring island, and so we leave Mulatupu in the late afternoon. From afar, Carti looks quite crowded with houses. When we arrive we realize that it is beyond crowded; it is jam-packed. The shoreline has been extended outward with mounds of dead coral and dirt brought from the mainland. Except for narrow paths and “streets” and small gathering areas, there isn’t a spot without a structure. There are nearly 4,000 people living on an island less than 300 yards long. The ideas of family and community are very important to the Kuna. As I see it, they sacrifice a lot of comfort for them. The average household is eight to ten people. They all sleep in hammocks and there is very little privacy. Jean-Philippe and I are spoiled to have our own room. I have to remind myself of that as we get ready for bed. We tie our hammocks from the rafters, leave our sandals down on the dirt floor and wriggle around trying to get comfortable. Just as I do a rainsquall hammers the tin roof and little rivers of water seep in through the gaps in the bamboo wall. I need sleep badly but it looks to be a long night.
Never assume that you will sleep better with a roof over your head. For the past few days we have slept in Nemessio’s sister’s house in hammocks. My entire body hurts and I am exhausted. The one night in the past week that we paddled out to an island to visit a family and camp, I slept like a baby. If you are six feet tall or taller you’ll catch more Z’s in a chair than you will in a hammock. They aren’t built for big people. It’s impossible to find a position where your body lies flat. I sag, I toss, I turn and my lower back stiffens up so badly I can barely move in the morning.
I roll out of the hammock and whine to Jean-Philippe, “A big cup of coffee and three ibuprofen please!!”
Every day I am more and more impressed with the pride and independence of these people. Things that I read in histories and anthropological accounts now resonate very strongly.
In the morning we have a conversation with a Kuna spiritual leader about religion. Missionaries from various Christian denominations have been here for a long time. Most Kuna have tried various churches, most have abandoned them or only go for social reasons. What is currently popular is a hybrid faith, a big spiritual compromise. The most popular church in Carti combines Kuna mythology and beliefs with some Catholic traditions. They have their own saints, their own spirits and God for them is their Great Father Spirit. They have even written their own bible. It was fascinating! We sat on the balcony listening for hours to a 90 year old man’s thoughts on the world and the Kuna’s place in it. He has been all over the States, Europe and Asia; he has studied Islam, Buddhism, Judaism and all facets of Christianity; he speaks flawless English and native Spanish and is currently studying French. And although he talks wistfully about his many journeys, both physical and spiritual, there is no place he’d rather be than the Kuna Yala.
In the afternoon we paddle around the island to take a break from the stifling heat. Life is harder than we thought it would be in these villages; we never imagined that they would be so densely packed. No breezes blow through the interior of the village. You sweat and accumulate a patina of dust on your skin from walking the dirt paths. Unlike the community offshore of the graveyard that we visited the other day, there is no running water in Carti. It is brought in big barrels from the mainland. Not everyone takes showers everyday. Many people have skin rashes and small lingering infections. There are no gardens on the island and all the food must be brought in as well. You can imagine then that the cuisine lacks any diversity. Fish is nice but you can only eat so much rice, beans and plantain before you go crazy. All of that wears on you but the biggest issue for me is the lack of septic systems. In our twenty-minute trip around the island we count nearly two hundred latrines built on docks out over the water. Where can all that waste possibly go? The fish can only eat so much. Needless to say, when you want to swim you go out to the deserted islands.
Our time here in the Kuna Yala has been eye-opening and fun, but I’m ready to go. It’s tiring to constantly be the subject of speculation. Eyes tell it all. Glances in our direction, even when accompanied by smiles, certainly mean that we are being talked about. “What are they doing here? What do they want? They’re not staying in the tourist lodges on the other islands. They’re not Mormons or Jehovah’s Witness. They’re not doctors. Are they buying molas? What, they’re taking photos? Do they have permission from the Sayla? Are they paying?” Generally the Kuna are friendly and curious but underlying it all is suspicion. In most communities, especially the more remote ones further south, outsiders are only allowed in town during the day, no overnight stays. You stay in a tourist lodge, on your boat or camp on an uninhabited island. There are few exceptions. As well, they know that their culture and photos of their people are worth money. The going rate is $1 per photo, and that’s after you have the permission of the Sayla council and then of course the subject as well. Far from a formality, permission is only granted after serious consideration. A week ago on the island of Maquina, one of the most traditional communities in the area, we explained the purpose of our documentaries and how we intended to promote Kuna culture and local eco-tourism and we were still denied permission. The response: “Kuna culture is not for outsiders to take and teach to other outsiders. It is ours.” Part of me admires that attitude and that pride, for isn’t it patronizing for us to think that we come here to help these people? Yet part of me has had enough. Jean-Philippe echoes my sentiment and we pack up the boats and reserve two spots on the next day’s flight.
Next up is the Darien, the most undeveloped region in Central America. Embera, Waounan and inland Kuna communities all call this region home. Guerrillas and cocaine traffickers, avoiding the heat from the US-backed “Plan Colombia”, have crossed the border and are hiding out there as well. We shall have to watch our step. We have heard tales of body painting, blowguns and unique jungle survival techniques. I can’t wait.
The next morning, just after dawn, the twin otter touches down on the runway carved out of the jungle on the mainland across from Carti. We joke with Nemessio and thank the Great Father Spirit for allowing us safe passage through the Kuna Yala. He smiles as he helps us load our gear onto the plane, “the Great Father Spirit is not for you crazy waga kayakers. For you it’s ‘Vaya con Dios.’”
We’ve just pulled into a banana republic and the waters are surprisingly calm.
As part of a jingoistic novel on Central American political history or as a coded line in a secret CIA communiqué, you could interpret the above comment metaphorically. 100 years ago a civil engineer arriving in Panama to assist in the design and digging of the “Big Ditch”, may have stepped off the steamer and--expecting endless malarial jungle--passed that remark while strolling through the colonial charm of the Casco Viejo sector of Panama City. A CIA operative touching down 20 years ago to start his new position as a “banker” during the Noriega regime may have introduced his first dispatch thusly. Yet for me, as I stand on the beach by the docks in Puerto Armuelles on Panama’s western border, it’s merely an observation. This town is spared from the angry Pacific surf by a geographical quirk and it’s awash in bananas; there is no other economy.
A scant few miles westward in Costa Rica the surf had pounded us as we paddled the Osa Peninsula. JP hurt himself badly on a landing and we were forced to abandon the expedition for a while so he could heal. We knew not what lay in store for us on the Panama side of the border.
A needle-thin peninsula juts out from the coastline just at the point where the two countries meet as if a cartographer had extended the demarcation line on a map out into the ocean. The difference in water conditions from the Costa Rica side to the Panama side is remarkable. On some days you could water ski in the bay at Puerto Armuelles.
Banana prices are down these days and the area is experiencing a depression. So are we as we scout around for a decent place to sleep. For many miles the beach is developed and there are no quiet spots for us to camp out of the way. It doesn’t feel safe to be out in a tent with unemployed and unhappy youth wandering about. We look for a cheap hotel and have little luck. Eventually we spy a white-walled compound that turns out to be a love hotel. By the hour or by the night it’s the same price. Business is slow and the evening caretaker cuts us a deal. For the price of one room plus a little tip, we each get our own. I am so tired I don’t pay attention to the layout of the room. It’s only upon waking up in the morning that I look around. The bed is a thin mattress set upon a three-foot high cement pad set in the center of the room like an island. There is access from all sides. I cringe and don’t let myself contemplate it any further. The shower stall is constructed of cinder blocks and a pipe protrudes from the wall from which dribbles an anemic stream of tepid water. I get up, shower, and step outside at almost the same moment as Jean-Philippe. We look at each other and laugh, “It was better than camping in the rain and we didn’t get mugged.”
We bring our boats and gear to the nearest beach access in a poor residential neighborhood in hopes of making an early launch. It’s 7:00 in the morning and already a large matronly woman and her young daughter are out working in the yard. Their house made of cement block and corrugated tin is modest but immaculate. They sweep up leaves and brush into a great pile and begin to burn it. The wind shifts often and plumes of acrid smoke, smelling like burning hair and rubber, drift over to our spot on the beach. They watch us pack the kayaks and smile encouragingly. The smoke is nauseating and we want to ask them to wait until we’ve departed to continue burning but we hold our tongues and work as quickly as possible. After what seems like an eternity we drag the boats to the water’s edge. We stare blankly at the food we’ve brought, our appetites all but gone, and stow it in the deck bags. I am lightheaded and half ill as we shove off into the lapping swell.
It’s hot but breezy and my condition improves over the first hour. We leave the busy shoreline of Puerto Armuelles behind and head toward the opposite side of the bay. Rows of houses give way to open stretches of dune and cultivated farmland. After another hour the cultivated fields are gone and all we see is empty beach and fallow fields, wild and overgrown with head-high grasses. We are completely alone.
The water conditions change drastically the further we paddle and it puts us on edge. After three hours the gentle swell of the protected side of the bay are a memory. We are no longer in the lee of the peninsula and now seven-foot swell passes underneath us, thrusting us skyward. The size of the waves and the shape of the beach worry us. The shore drops steeply away from the edge of the dune into deep water. The waves, with no shallows to slow them down, come in at full speed and rear up abruptly before pounding the beach and sending a wall of foam rushing up the steep slope. It’s a clear day and we can see two-story high clouds of mist hovering above the shore and glinting in the sun for miles ahead of us. We’ve paddled 17 or 18 miles and we are tired, frustrated and afraid. Jean-Philippe looks at me and I make the decision to land. I can’t go much further.
To land in these conditions is insane. There is no more technical maneuver in all of sea kayaking than landing on a steep beach with a huge shore break. We wait off shore for 20 minutes to study the wave sets and judge the timing of our move. After a set passes there is a 15 second window before the next one arrives. In that amount of time, we have to make it through the breaking zone, hit the shore and be pulling our boats up the beach or risk being crushed by the first wave of the new set. I was dead in the water with fatigue 15 minutes before but as I count the waves to time my entry I am twitching with adrenaline.
A massive set passes and we make our move. Due to the deep water, the breaking zone is mercifully short. We paddle madly toward the foaming beach to overcome the undertow from the receding waves. Jean-Philippe is slightly ahead of me and to my right; separated by what appears to be a safe distance. I have no concept of time and have not looked behind me. My eyes are glued to the beach. JP hits the shore and in a smooth motion rips off the spray skirt and hops out. I am less than two seconds behind. I make the mistake of stealing a glance behind me and I see a vertical nine-foot wall of water. I still have a chance to make it. I tear off the spray skirt and dive out of my cockpit. My foot gets caught on the coaming and I fall over backwards. The wave pounces on the stern of my kayak and I yell “Shiiiit!” as it envelops me. JP is already pulling his boat up and when he hears me he whips around but he’s too late. The wave wash tosses my boat up the beach toward him with phenomenal speed. The 18 foot boat filled with gear, sand and water must weigh over 500 lbs and it careens into the back of his legs. I fear the worst.
I am shocked to see him pop back up and we both recover quickly. We haul the waterlogged boats up as high as we can and collapse at the edge of the dune. It is only then that we pause to assess what we accomplished and what damage we sustained. Our onshore perspective of the waves leaves us agape. We’d have continued paddling all night if we knew the power with which the story-high walls of water pounded the steep shore. We’re extremely lucky to have our gear and bodies intact. And as we sit frozen, gawking, the adrenaline rush wears off and Jean-Philippe starts to feel his ankle.
Adrenaline is an amazing enabler. In the heat of the moment it will allow even the most gravely injured to persevere. When the action stops so does its power.
J-Philippe’s ankle looks as if it has been inflated with air and the skin just above it is ragged and bloody. There is no way to know if it is bruised, sprained or broken. We are in the middle of nowhere, 18 miles from town and who knows how many miles from the road.
With no other immediate alternatives, we reluctantly set up camp. It’s the middle of the day and the sun is blazing. We flatten out a spot on the top of the dune, dig holes for driftwood posts and string up the tarp to create some shade. At this point Jean-Philippe is in extreme pain. He immobilizes himself and props his leg up to try to reduce the swelling and pulls out the map.
Evacuation looks nearly impossible. According to the map, 12 miles of farmland and a maze of tractor trails separate us from the main road and civilization. We debate our options. I could conceivably walk out to the main road and go get help but chances are high I would get hopelessly lost on the farm roads. We could wait until tomorrow and see if JP’s leg allows him to paddle. Or I could walk back on the beach 20 miles to Puerto Armuelles, with no risk of getting lost, and summon help from there. As we weigh the pros and cons of each, something way off in one of the fields catches our attention.
A flock of gulls and smaller birds hover in the sky above a cloud of dust that moves slowly in our direction. I wade through the head-high bramble of grasses separating the dune from the farm field to check it out. Eventually a large tractor pulling a mulcher and a plow comes into view. I jog towards the tractor and the driver nearly falls out of his seat when he sees me.
I explain our situation but I don’t think he believes me until we approach the camp and he sees for himself. He puts the tractor into low gear and points it straight through the high grasses and up the steep dune and nearly runs over the stern of my kayak before he sees the campsite. He shakes his head and gives us a look—one with which we have become all too familiar—of bemused disbelief and gestures toward the trailer. Within 15 minutes we break down the camp, pile the kayaks and bags on top of the plow and lash everything down. We hunker down on top of the wheel wells on both sides of the cab and head off, bumping and clawing our way through the half-plowed field. An hour and a half later we arrive at a cluster of houses and a well-traveled dirt road. I’m optimistic that we’ll be ensconced in a cheap motel in a couple hours and at the clinic to get JP’s ankle examined in the morning.
I leave JP sitting with the gear in the shade of a crumbling bus shelter and hitch a ride from the first passing car. I will return with the truck to pick him up. I stuff myself into the back seat and my mind wanders, looking for a way to justify the random sequence of events of the day. . .
In the remote frontiers of developing countries, life is filled with endless inconveniences and mishaps. Yet many of them, through a string of minor miracles, are somehow resolved. Daily we are witness to the balanced push and pull of luck and fate. When the calm waters rear up and smite us and leave us broken on the sandy margins of abandoned crop land, a hopeful farmer with a plow and persistence ends up as our hero. It’s oddly appropriate that two paddlers, who have slipped up in banana country, are rescued by a tractor.
After leaving J-Philippe with the gear and hitching a ride, I am sure that all will soon be well. It turns out I am wrong.
I’m stuffed into the back of a relic of a Toyata Corolla with a young farmer, his wife and two boys. The car has survived the 90’s, the 80’s and then some. On the exterior, where bondo ends and sheet metal begins, nobody knows. It has been frosted like a cake with a thick layer of white house paint. The suspension is non-existent. The seats have been stuffed with old rags and chunks of mattress foam and reupholstered by hand and what’s left of the cloth ceiling hangs down in tattered streamers from raw metal. The two boys next to me pick at it, ripping off little pieces of rotting fabric and throwing it at each other like confetti. The farmer must be somewhat of a mechanical magician for the engine purrs. His affection for the engine does not extend to the rest of the vehicle and he blasts along the rutted country road with complete disdain for the chassis. Initially grateful for the ride, I am now in extreme discomfort. And as it turns out, the place where the tractor dropped us off is nowhere near the main road. It takes us 45 minutes to get to the highway.
Just after dusk I crawl from the back seat and offer profuse thanks and a few moist dollars to the family. They gesture to a cement shelter on the opposite side of the road and tell me I can wait there for a bus. 20 minutes later I slump down into a seat next to a pretty local girl, who surprisingly offers a smile. I smile back. The joke is on her. She hasn’t smelled me yet. In the dim light she can’t see my salt and sweat encrusted paddling clothes and dirty face. Fortunately the windows are open and as the bus rumbles along at 60 miles an hour, the howling wind kills both my stench and any possibility for embarrassing conversation. It’s a 25-mile ride to the border, a transfer, and another 20-mile ride out onto the peninsula to Puerto Armuelles where our vehicle is parked. I am dehydrated and starving and my night is far from over. Yet compared to what J-Philippe is up against at that very moment, my ordeal is a joyride.
After I hop in the Toyota, J-Philippe is left to lounge among the dry bags on the side of the road with his injured foot propped up on his kayak. It’s the middle of nowhere, what could possibly happen to him?
If there is anything that Latin America has demonstrated in the last 100 years, it is not possible to make a clean break from the violent legacy of dictatorships. The power mongers who embezzled the country’s soul and savings may vanish but the poor brutes they hired as enforcers have to go somewhere. Idle, disenfranchised and struggling with the anonymity of peasant-hood, many can be found in the middle of nowhere. While I am riding the rumble seat towards Puerto Armuelles, J-Philippe meets a pair of Noriega’s former henchmen.
A faded red sedan with blown out windows and a knock-kneed alignment rattles past, stops, and backs up. Two men eye the kayaks and the mound of gear, and seeing that J-Philippe is alone, decide to get out. One is massive, a real-life caricature straight out of a comic book or a Hollywood Rambo movie. They approach Jean-Philippe. They can see that JP is not a small guy, and fortunately, as it’s now dusk and he’s lying down, they can’t see that he’s badly injured. They pause and start probing for soft spots by asking suggestive questions.
“What are you doing out here by yourself? Aren’t you afraid something might happen to you? What’s in all the bags? How much is that stuff worth? Where are you from?”
J-Philippe senses that it’s not wise to let on that he is an American citizen and tells them he is French. He then explains about the kayaking expedition and how we are well-known adventurers who have received the equipment from sponsors, thus avoiding the subject of monetary value.
At one point they mention that they are part-time fishermen and farmers and make it clear that they are not happy with their current lot in life. They had been soldiers, with a regular salary, and now they have nothing. And then out of nowhere they glare at JP and ask him a question that condenses and crystallizes the clammy tension that he has felt all along, “What do you feel about Noriega?” JP tenses and unconsciously readies himself.
J-Philippe learned from an early age as a new kid in the schoolyard that the best defense is a strong offense. Training in the French Special Forces after high school padded his conviction. Experience that came with adulthood and world travels tempered that philosophy with sensitivity and sensibility. That has combined with a natural predisposition to talk a blue streak and he now relies almost entirely on powerful rhetoric to solve potential conflicts. However, if a situation deteriorates he has the confidence that he can back it up.
“There are some bad people out here,” they say. “For example, what would you do if a couple guys attacked you and tried to take your gear?”
JP launches into an explanation of the anti-terrorism tactics and hand-to-hand, vital-points combat training he received in the Special Forces. He pushes himself up with extreme effort, trying not to grimace in pain, and stands up to demonstrate: a deft jab of the thumb toward the eye, a thrust toward the jugular and a short flurry of backhanded punches toward the groin and face. The expressions on their faces immediately shift and soften. The tight creases in the corners of the eyes that belie nefarious intent are replaced by wide-eyed respect and curiosity. The situation is defused; JP relaxes and they spend the next hour talking.
The two men secretly hope for another military uprising, or a police state. The peaceful democracy that has come to the remote reaches of Panama in the past decade in the wake of the Noriega regime has not brought prosperity to all. The economy has become regionalized. Banking and shipping fuel Panama City and large-scale agriculture bolsters some of the western towns, but for those in the outlying regions there is little to smile about. As soldiers for Noriega their daily necessities were taken care of and they received regular, albeit small, pay. And perhaps most importantly they had tasted power and notoreity and had invoked fear. As fishermen and farmers they feel emasculated.
By the time I return, the men are long gone and J-Philippe has been sitting alone in complete darkness for four hours. It’s after 10:30 at night and he has passed through the worry stage. He rummages through the gear to set up camp and is halfway done when I arrive. His jaw goes slack, he sighs and all he says is “Ooooh yeah.” The look of relief on his face makes me laugh.
Without care or concern we indiscriminately throw bags of gear into the back of the SUV. You know you are exhausted when thousands of dollars worth of gear becomes no more concern to you than a sack of potatoes. I think to myself that I now know what it must be like to be an airport baggage handler.
JP’s ankle is so stiff he can barely walk. It is a struggle to lift the boats onto the roof. Every shift and slight loss of balance makes him wince. I tie the boats down while he collapses in the front seat, tilts it back, puts his foot up on the dash and begins to moan. I am so exhausted that every sensory input seems to thicken my hearing and vision, as if I’ve donned a hallucinatory veil. I become transfixed by the soft roar of the tires on the gravelly dirt road, the occasional muffled ping of a stone bouncing off the undercarriage, the trilled “chee, chee, chee” of crickets and the moans of my injured partner. Dust billows up from the dry road coating the headlights and creating distorting halos. I have no idea how, but we pull into a hotel at midnight without incident.
The night clerk doesn’t know what to say when he sees us. I see his mouth start to form questions but he hesitates, says nothing, and hands over the keys. “Es una historia muy larga,” I say. And it is a long story. I’d have to go back nearly three years and 4,000 miles to give the guy enough perspective to truly understand. We must look like bedraggled prisoners of war. Hell, as far as he knows Noriega ran us down on his way out of town.
Panama Hospital 04/20 - 04/27
Darien April 28 to May 12
Panama May 12 - 15
Ngobe May 16 to 27
Panama: Puerto Armuelles to Cambutal
Next we take a summer break, work on Native Planet, then return to Cambutal.
It is a long haul out to this town at the end of the Azuero peninsula. The road to the beach is cracked, parched and dusty. By the end of the day your throat feels the same. In the mid-day heat, when you breathe through your nose to avoid choking on the dust, your nostrils sear, like when you inhale too quickly in a sauna.
For the last few miles of driving, before the beach comes into sight, my pulse quickens. Black vultures wheel in the sky above the desiccated carcass of a cow. Wispy reeds and thigh-high grasses, burnt and bleached by the sun, rustle and rattle in a stiff wind. Crumpled and amorphous brown leaves scurry like rats across the road pushed by gusts. I distract myself with these observations on purpose. We took a long break and haven’t paddled in months. I am apprehensive. Jean-Philippe as well is not his usual chatty ebullient self. One of his last days in a boat last year he nearly died in the roiling water of the Rio San Juan on the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border. And they say the Caribbean surf is smaller and less powerful. Cambutal is one of Panama’s famous Pacific surf beaches. He must be more worried.
At mid-morning we arrive, look out and groan. Low tide is between 10:00 and 10:30, about the time the winds start to really blow and the time we plan to be finished paddling each day. What greets our eyes is a wide shallow beach with a daunting portage. It’s a good 300 yards from the water line to the high tide mark. Scattered throughout are clusters of large rocks, like molars. Waiting to chew up our kayaks. Almost simultaneously we look at each other, “No Way!”
“Departure just after first light so that we can see to clear the surf break, then three to three and a half hours paddling, max. We don’t make that carry each day,” Jean-Philippe says.
Winds and currents increase throughout the day. An early departure and short paddle is the only option. No more 10-hour days; no more malnourishment and dehydration and watching our bodies melt away from lack of protein; no repeat of Nicaragua. We will assess the conditions and climate and adapt rather than struggle.
For five months a year, from December to May, the Azuero Peninsula is a semi-arid desert. Looking around, it’s hard to imagine that for the other seven months it is the exact opposite. For now there is no rain and mercifully no insects. Yet there is wind, surf and heat. We will think like Bedouin and move in the cool margins of the day, find shade to escape the heat and as they progress through the troughs of the great dunes, so shall we thread our way, with timing and skill, through the curling walls of whitewater.
“Panama City in less than three weeks.” Mark my words.
In the early morning the water out beyond the surf zone is flat. There is no wind for a couple hours. The fearsome Pacific surf has fortunately proven to be predictable. There is always a window of calm between sets. Two days out from the put-in at Cambutal we have regained total confidence. Our strokes are back to their particular metronomic rhythms. I slip so deeply into meditative revelry that I often don’t notice Jean-Philippe signaling me. He gets exasperated. I am ambivalent. We are back to our old roles, still helpless to change them. Fortunately our days still finish with laughter at urn follies.
From afar Playa Venao is unremarkable. It is famous but we can’t see why. We pull into the perfect horseshoe bay framing the beach and look towards shore. The sight that meets our eyes makes us look at each other in an unspoken gesture of understanding. Shaped like a giant solar cooker, the bay reflects the incoming waves toward the beach. A stiff offshore wind pushes them up into big pregnant curls and they roll and collapse in a long thundering roar like a fluid line of dominoes from the outside toward the center. It’s a surfer’s dream.
There can’t be any other reason to come here. There is nothing but a cantina and a double row of shabby pink cabanas the size of a walk-in closet. We order cokes and look for an outlet to plug in the computer. Warm bottles arrive with plastic cups of ice. We understand that we will get no work done either; there is no electricity.
A group of local kids and one car full of rich boys from Panama City in bright new surf togs romp in the waves on short boards. They stare at us uncomprehendingly. We waited until the big set passed to paddle in instead of shooting the curl. They must think we are wimps. The other Americans who come here are always fearless big-wave riders looking for the endless summer and the endless cerveza. We sip Fresca and surf low-calorie waves.
We unload our boats, and unload our boats and still unload our boats. They point and nod approvingly. Now they get it. Especially when they see the big box of camera gear and the computer.
Manhood is frail and we must redeem ourselves. We quickly set up camp down the beach, pull out the video camera, the waterproof camera, the slide camera and Jean-Philippe’s howitzer-like, focal 2.6, 80-200 zoom lens and prepare for the ultimate photo shoot.
Two more cars pull up. I stroke out into the expiring foam of a big set as they empty out and stare in wonder. I clear the surf zone in the ensuing window of calm. The new set doesn’t come fast enough. I am anxious to put on a good show. “We are the CASKE 2000 Team, we paddle anything!” I am thinking. Adrenaline makes my arms shake and I try to stifle a nervous yawn.
Finally my stern is pushed up by a sizable undulation, the sign of a big set on its way. I let the first two pass. Number three rears up behind me. I stroke hard twice and look back. “It might be too big,” I think, but it’s too late. A strong gust of wind pushes the face higher than I want it. My boat shudders, accelerates with a jerk and in the blink of an eye my stern is vertical. It is rare to catch a wave straight on in a sea kayak. However, I am not pleased with my success. My bow plunges into the sandy bottom and the stern rotates over my head in a graceful arc. The foam engulfs me, the kayak spits me out and I surface 5 seconds later. The kayak is 50 yards in front of me, bouncing along in the slough of the dissipating wave, about to land on shore without me.
People on shore cringe. The rich boys cheer. Jean-Philippe is ecstatic, laughing and whooping.
“I put the camera on rapid-fire. I got it all! Cover Shot material!”
I stand in waist-deep water, plant my feet, “Nailed the dismount!”
We take turns alternately wrecking ourselves and riding a wave successfully into shore. I salvage some pride with a couple miracle recoveries. All is recorded for posterity. After an hour we are waterlogged and exhausted and with yet another crash landing, we decide to quit for the day.
Someone pulls my boat up. Someone else buys me a beer. I sip it and check my body and look for damage and am surprised, and a bit disappointed, to find not a blemish.
I smile at Jean-Philippe, “there is a fine line between ignominy and glory. Don’t lose that film!”
We scour the steep banks and thick brush on shore for a camp spot. Here in the mouth of the Rio Mensabe nothing looks good. I make a suggestion. JP makes a suggestion. A terse exchange of words follows. At this stage in the expedition neither of us has any more patience for crummy campsites. The little settlement here is a fish camp, 20 years past its prime, called La Candelaria. “Candlemas” is a glorious feast lit by thousands of candles to commemorate the purification of the Virgin Mary and the presentation of the infant Jesus. I can’t imagine that this place even in its prime ever could have inspired such a name. It looks like we will starve for shade and be feasted on by insects.
As we settle in a small opening in the brush it strikes me that we have reached the third stage in the development of an everlasting friendship, true brotherhood. Only from a brother do you give and take direct insults and biting sarcasm without batting an eye. It’s a sign of total acceptance, confidence in your relationship and even affection.
“Nice campsite! We should’ve kept paddling.”
“Hey, you could’ve read the map and plotted an itinerary. Oh, I forgot, you suck at it, we’d end up in Colombia!”
“Yeah, and if I read the map and you did the shopping and cooking we’d end up with spaghetti three meals a day!”
After the big waves of Playa Venao, the paddling has become anticlimactic. The eastern side of Azuero is more protected. Winds and tides are still a problem but the surf is not a real issue. Wide stretches of open sand beach are rare. Many rock beds create potential hazards for us launching and landing. But if we get out in the predawn calm, time the landing to coincide with high tide and pick our spots well on the map, all is well. A year ago it was comforting to realize that we’ve reached this level of skill, competence and seamanship. Now it is second nature. I think I might even be a little bored.
Behind us a hundred yards further up the river are the ruins of what must have been an important fishing port. On both shores we see a crumbling pile of asphalt and a heavily eroded ramp. Extending horizontally out from the ramps are a few rotting timbers. From there, at odd intervals down the banks and into the margins of the river, the remnants of posts jut out of the sand like the few solitary trunks, blackened and crumbling, left standing after a forest fire. In the middle of the river there is no sign of the bridge that once was.
I would be a failure as an archaeologist I think. Ruins depress me. I can’t muster any positive inquiry into the past glory of a place when faced with such advanced entropy. Morbid curiosity makes me hypothesize only about why and how a place fell from grace and why people left.
The asphalt road to the bridge is overgrown and has reverted almost completely to red dirt. Except for one rusty carcass of a shrimp trawler beached n the opposite shore, all the big fishing boats are gone. A few pangas, some buoys and piles of netting indicate that at least a few fishermen are still at it.
We set up camp and go off to explore. We escape from the heat by walking in the shade of the overgrown road for an hour. We return to camp in the afternoon, nap and wake when the sun is low in the sky. Jean-Philippe unfolds our poor map and pulls out the GPS. I start the camp-stove to boil water for pasta.
We look westward, inland as the sun sets. Soft orange light filters into our campsite that we’ve hacked out of the brush, flickering as a breeze rustles the leaves. The line of posts that trail off into the water from the bridge ruins look like half-melted candles stuck randomly into a candelabra.
The boiling pasta trails wisps of steam like smoke. I serve and begin to eat as the sunlight over La Candelaria is all but extinguished.
Iguanas are deceptive. They lie still and move suddenly with blinding quickness. Dark coloring, evil hooded eyes, spiny heads and long sharp claws give them a menacing air. However, when threatened, they just shut down, totally. You can handle them easily. Once conquered they’re harmless.
We were headed to “Isla Iguana,” a small island off the coast of the Azuero Peninsula, a semi-arid desert this time of year. How many iguanas could there be on a dry island? What’s the story behind the name? Is it a legend? An allegory? What would Isla Iguana have in store for us? Our itinerary was set; we were going.
I usually calculate the coordinates a week or so ahead of departure. Jean-Philippe plots our itinerary on the map and hands it off to me. In Baja and Belize we used Technical Piloting Charts. In the Mosquito Coast of Honduras and Nicaragua we went a step further by using small-scale maps with a lot of detail. We were nervous about crossing through those areas. I even made a special trip and spent an entire day at the government’s National Institute of Geography in Tegucigalpa enduring questions from the incredulous and incompetent staff while compiling a complete set. Lately we’ve become complacent. For Panama, all we have is a 1:800,000-scale International Travel Map, and for driving and coastal navigation it will point you in the right direction. That’s about all you can say for it.
When plotting your course to the islands, it’s mostly a guessing game, an approximation. I read Jean-Philippe my calculations. He entered them in the GPS: seven miles off the coast. A decent crossing, we thought, but as we’d done others of 18 miles or more, we weren’t worried.
In the days leading up to the crossing, the more we heard, the more our confidence waned. Local fishermen kept telling us that Nortes whip through the channel this time of year. They build to nearly 30 knots throughout the morning pushing up 9 foot swell and they taper only at dusk. On an east-west coastline it’s an offshore wind. We’d make it out no problem. The return would be the challenge.
We loaded the boats on the beach in total darkness at 5:00 AM and stared out into the void. This time of year in Panama the sunrise is between 6:30 and 7:00. There is no light in the sky at all until after 6:00. Anticipation made my stomach churn, and I nearly gagged on my breakfast of pastries and water. The sky lightened; we looked out to sea; the island came into view and we were met with another shocking surprise. Jean-Philippe looked at me, “well, there’s no way the GPS messed up.”
“It’s always human error that screws up the big expeditions. Bunch of idiots over at International Travel Maps,” I said, totally denying any possibility that I had erred in my calculations of the coordinates. We laughed and got in our boats as the island materialized not more than three or four miles off shore.
Moments later we were stroking out beyond the protective arm of a small point into the channel. The winds picked up immediately. The sell increased to six or seven feet and refracted waves and chop created bouncy clapotis, just enough to give us a fun thrill. A quartering wind pushed us from the rear and we pulled up to an empty white sand beach in 45 minutes.
“2.9 miles exactly, “ JP smiled.
From a mile and a half away we had noticed something strange about the island. A gray, liquid pallor seemed to hover above it like a cloud of locusts. In the last mile it came into focus Birds, thousands of them! We stepped onto the end of the beach and marveled at the sky thick with the tiny bodies and six-foot wingspans of frigate birds all riding an updraft over the cusp of a small hill. “A wildlife refuge indeed,” I thought.
A fishing camp at the other end of the beach soured our first impression. A jumble of cooking pits constructed of rocks and corrugated tin, hammocks, items of clothing and plastic tanks of water and gasoline lay strewn around in the shade of coconut palms and beach grape trees. Although the island is a protected wildlife sanctuary, it serves as a hang-out spot and base camp for area fishermen.
We walked around the island and snorkeled out from the beach. There were no iguanas in the trees and few fish in the turquoise waters. Why had the frigates stayed on?
Within an hour 10 panga boats pulled up onto the beach. They disgorged a gaggle of fishermen who set about unloading tanks of water, gas and provisions. Some went off and fished with lines or spear guns. Most sat around talking, laughing, cooking o sleeping in hammocks. Jean-Philippe chatted with a few of them, at one point asking about the origin of the name. “Why ‘Isla Iguana,’ there aren’t any here? What happened to them?” he asked, and jokingly added, “did you guys eat them all?”
“Oh yeah, long time ago,” a weathered old man answered.
In the afternoon the winds softened and by dusk it was dead calm. In the waning light the fishermen packed up and motored off. We were alone.
We awoke early to the blatting of engines and bustle of men unloading their pangas. They picked right up where they left off the day before. We decided it was our cue to leave and we were in our boats by 7:30
Out of curiosity we made a pass around the island on our way out. The south end tailed away into a long sliver of a point. Around the backside, a jagged ridge of rocky abutments flared out from the shore. The north end of the island was a bulbous and oblong protrusion. And as we paddled of into the rising swell of the channel, something in my subconscious started a chain of thought. There had been a large sinkhole in the middle of the north end. An eye?
I thought of the frigates floating in the updraft above it all. “I bet the whole thing looks like a. . .,” I thought to myself, “well, you know. . .”
In many ways the tiny, protected cove and fish camp of Nueva Gorgona is an oasis. Most of it is thick mangrove swamp. Space at the west end has been carved out for a few huts and cabanas, a small parking area and a beach for launching the lanchas. For many miles east and west of Nueva Gorgona the beachfront is developed with houses, exclusive day resorts and restaurants interspersed among open stretches of lightly forested field. In contrast to their neighbors, the few families in Nueva Gorgona make a living the way most Panamanians used to, from the sea.
For the two days prior to arrival in Nueva Gorgona, we moved through an evolving landscape. Playa Blanca, Playa Sta. Clara and Playa Rio Mar are new, clean little developments built along manicured access roads off of the Pan Am Highway. Most beachfront is taken up by private houses and the only semi-public access points are the day resorts, complete with loud stereos and beach umbrellas. You must pay to park and overnight stays are usually not permitted. We stopped for meals in these places but made a point to camp elsewhere. We’d have had no peace otherwise.
In the heat of mid-morning, against the pull of the ebbing tide, we stroke into the tiny inlet and see a vision from Panama’s past. The name “panama” means “plenty of fish” and although the fisheries aren’t what they used to be, apparently this community still believes; its entire existence is based on them. Narrow wooden lanchas, their paint peeling and faded, their gunwales gouged and rough, bounce in slight chop. Many of them lie half keeled over, beached by the low tide. Huge mounds of fishing nets, buoys and lines lie in the shade of trees higher on shore. Pickup trucks parked adjacent to the trees, smell of their cargo and drip bloody brine onto the hot sand. A couple dozen fishermen and their families sit on benches in open-air huts drinking sodas and listening to the frenetic tinny wail of merengue on old radios. A pack of young kids, naked but for tattered undergarments, frolic in the water, jumping and diving from the idle boats.
Except for a few children, nobody even blinks when we pull up. It’s not that we feel unwelcome, but they seem oblivious or ambivalent to our arrival. I sense that they must feel the same way about progress, the passage of time and modern development. Time stands still in this little cove. I can’t imagine much has changed in 40 years.
Jean-Philippe and I are not used to this kind of reaction. The oddity of our expedition and our fully-outfitted kayaks usually makes us instant celebrities upon arrival in a small village. Everybody wants to try the boats; everybody wants to look at the equipment. We spend at least a couple hours explaining who we are, what we do, where we came from, what all the gear is and on and on. In Nueva Gorgona we are asked nearly nothing.
I buy a pargo rojo (red snapper) for dinner and automatically steel myself for the onslaught of curious questioning. Nothing happens. It is just a matter-of-fact transaction to them. We set up camp, cook dinner and go to sleep with little more interaction.
I am dulled by the non-activity of the day before and am unprepared for what we encounter the next morning. Departure before dawn is important so that we may reach our destination before low tide. We are on our way before 5:00 and paddle out of the cove in total darkness. We move along the coast for an hour. A dull glow appears off to the east and we assume it’s the sun. I check my watch but it’s too early to be the sunrise. As we approach a low stretch of land the skyline of Panama appears out of nowhere. Along the waterfront, there are a dozen buildings of more than 40 stories interspersed among much smaller structures. Lit up, they form an electric bar graph thrusting upwards to various heights from the flat axis of the shoreline. Having spent the previous day in a wrinkle of time decades in the past, it takes our breath away and we stop paddling for a few minutes to just stare.
I imagine this surprise is the first wave of a large set that will wash over us as we paddle into the Bay of Panama and the Canal Zone. To pass through a pastoral fishing village one day and under the Bridge of the Americas along with supertankers the next is hard to reconcile.
The Bay of Panama is a grand sight. Paddling towards Balboa and the outskirts of the city the view changes with the time of day. During daylight hours you can’t see the city until you’re within 15 miles. A soft haze makes it impossible to see that far. What you do see are the islands. The biggest and most historically important is Taboga. The hills and towering forest canopy draw your eyes to it immediately. Pizzaro, the Spanish Conquistador, used the bountiful hardwoods from the forest to build ships and the island became his base from which he sailed south to conquer the Inca Empire in Peru.
Thoughts of history and nature fade with the sunset and the sparkling skyline of the most modern city in Central America dominates the night sky. The waterfront is the most developed zone of the city with a dozen buildings of more than 40 stories. Compared to the small coastal towns and villages that we have seen the past two and a half years, it is both surprising and beautiful.
The ten square mile area around the mouth of the Canal Zone is full of cargo ships all waiting their turn. From near the shore looking out it looks like a naval blockade. Our destination is Playa Veracruz on the western side of the canal over the bridge from Panama City. The beach is clean, white sand, a surprise being so close to the city. We have the good fortune to arrive on a weekday. This beach is the hotspot on the weekend for the young crowd. Thousands of cars pack the parking lots and the endless strip of eateries and bars hums with activity and thumps to the cacophonous beat of competing car stereos. It is mercifully quiet on a Thursday morning.
1 km = 0.62 statute miles
1 Nautical Mile = 1.85 km
1 Nautical Mile = 1.15 miles
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