Settling into Life in Panama
by Kent McNaughton, April 24, 2003
Time again to say hello. This is an account of two days last week, I spent with some friends at the beach.
On a previous trip to Las Lajas beach, trying to lay out the beach property bought by a fellow client of our real estate agent -- Miriam, we came across Pancho, the caretaker of a neighboring property. Pancho invited us to use this place, if we wanted. We took him up on his offer and made plans for Good Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
I picked up Isabel, a partner to Miriam in real estate, then Miriam and her daughter Epifinia and a friend of theirs, Margarita. We loaded the truck with provisions we'd need and we were off.
Now, understand: this wasn't a five-star hotel we were going to. There wouldn't be linen napkins, nor concierge, nor even refrigeration. So provisioning was important. First priority, of course, was beer, wine, rum, Coca Cola, cooler chests, and ice. Then from these various folks home gardens, we brought pineapple, oranges, tangerines, veggies and eggs. Stopping at a harbor a few miles beyond the beach, we bought five red snapper -- each about 14 inches long -- and two or three pounds of fillet of dorado, right off the boat.
Driving onto Las Lajas beach, we found there was only about twenty yards of beach between the beach grass and the water, and the tide was coming in. It would be a very high tide that night. Another friend -- Amato -- was coming supposedly an hour later, but he would be stalled by the tide and didn't make it in until the tide receded -- about three hours after we got set up.
At low tide, the beach is probably 150 to 200 yards wide. To get to waist-high water is another 50 or 75 yards. Las Lajas is a long, straight beach, going about 12 miles in an East/West direction without a break in its soft light-brown sand. Offshore a few miles is a deep trench where "the big ones" swim. (Panama is home to world records in blue marlin and black marlin catches). Except for our little group, there is no one for a mile to the East. To the West, there is no one at all.
The property Pancho is responsible for seems to be about 5 acres and has about 200-300 feet of beachfront in the front of the property and the same estuarial frontage on a river/lagoon in the back. It has five buildings on it including a large kitchen/veranda, a separate shower/toilet facility, and a building with two bedrooms and a large porch. Noni grows on the property -- a fruit with many supposed health benefits, and one whose taste can be unfavorably compared with castor oil, and whose smell is worse: think of rat puke. Also growing on the property are pineapple, coconut and passion fruit.
The kitchen/veranda building is constructed in beam-and-post fashion, open on three sides, roofed with bamboo sticks, supporting the thatched covering. It has a polished concrete floor. The kitchen is open to the veranda and has a large grill, a sink, a stove and a long food preparation counter. Four large serving windows face the veranda. There is electricity, provided by a gas-powered generator, but the generator was so loud we turned it off and used one of the cars for light once it got really dark.
One hammock -- used by Pancho, who was off for the holy days -- was already up. I strung another hammock, forgetting exactly how to tie a bowline knot and only got two of the four knots right. What the heck! It was up and supported each of us until we broke camp.
I gathered wood for the grill fire in the semi-enclosed kitchen and Isabel outdid herself cooking up the fish. Each of us had a whole snapper -- a head and tail too big for the plate. This was accompanied by a delicious concoction of something or other that (I think) Miriam brought. Wine and rum & coke flowed freely. So did the conversation -- all of it in Spanish of which I understood little, except when Miriam or Isabel translated for me.
On the way to the beach, Margarita mentioned that in younger days she had sang in front of audiences. I asked her to sing, promising that I would to -- and expecting the rest of the group (all of them cowards in this case) to play the game and sing a song. Margarita sang two beautiful love songs in Spanish. I sang "My Darlin' Sportin' Jenny," then "Mariah." Margarita sang another two Spanish love songs, beautifully. And the mike went dead. (There wasn't a real microphone for ten miles in any direction -- and more probably fifty).
Amato turned on, I swear, the only CD that's either sold or played in Panama. Eddie Herrera. He's everywhere. At the fairs, in the bars, on the radio of course. I'm sure he's played during wedding and funeral ceremonies. And when a new president is sworn in. He's quite good -- the first thousand or so times. To answer the obvious question: Of course you can dance to it! This is Latin America, after all!!
As we did both nights, three of the gals slept on the porch, Isabel in a hammock on the veranda, and the guys in our respective cars with the windows open. (Because it cools at night, but still remains quite warm, you want to be able to catch some of the sea breeze to remain comfortable). Actually, I brought a borrowed air mattress to sleep on, but gave it up to the lovely Epifania when she sweetly batted her dark brown eyes at me.
We all got up pretty much at the same time. Epifinia made pancakes from scratch. With butter and syrup, and native coffee -- some of the best in the world and accompanied by fresh pineapple, it was delicious. We all had seconds.
Some of the group left early on a walk. I read for a bit, reading the book "Central America" which starts before anything James Mitchener ever wrote about and continues for 150 pages before we get to the part where Mitchner might have begun, then caught up with them swimming in the lagoon.
The lagoon is really a tidal estuary with pools that remain -- even at low tide. The lagoon has warm spots and cooler ones. During the tides, the currents can be strong. Incoming high tides force a strong inrush toward the jungle. Outgoing tidal currents are just as strong, towards the ocean. But this morning we were towards the end of a low tide and the current was barely felt.
The previous night Isabel made some comment about estuaries and how some snappers get in during high tide chased by sharks and are also attractive meals for the crocodiles, which may live upriver -- though Pancho said a week earlier when I asked "No, nunca" (never). As I entered the soft sand, sinking in three or four inches, I had this awful thought of being swallowed up by still gooyier sand, then caught immobile as the sharks and crocodiles argued among themselves as to who would eat first. This thought passed, but I kept watch for beady eyes, nostrils, and fins.
Lunch was leftover fish from the previous night made into a fish salad. Isabel put in onion, celery and some spices (also peppers?) to make it really special. Margarita provided a nice pasta salad she'd brought along.
An emergency caucus resulted in some decisions. Someone (this looked very much like me from the get-go) would have to go for ice. As always, other items were added: mayonaise, alka-seltzer, coca cola (we had rum, but the coke was getting low -- go figure). In 4WD, the Toyota truck sped across the beach, sending whole groups of red crabs into wild communal retreats. They were fun to watch (and I did my best to avoid hitting any of them) as these strange creatures scampered across the beach in groups of four to a hundred.
It's Good Friday. much is closed. All stores selling alchohol (the most likely to also sell ice) are closed.
We went a few miles to the Pan-American Highway before finding a store to buy ice. There was a table of maybe ten or twelve American soldiers eating lunch there. (I thought I'd put to rest a curiousity I'd had regarding their mission). I said hi, asked where they were from, told them where I was from, then asked them what they were doing here. (The news media here said they we here to develop roads and bridges. The rumor is that they're putting a base here). They told me they've been developing roads and bridges, and now that's complete and they're leaving. They're a good-looking group of men, though sweat is poring through their khaki t-shirts. I didn't see any one of them who looked like he might have been a rookie in the field. They seemed all to be thirty-something and physically hard -- though all friendly to me. Anyway, we got the ice, then the rest at another mercado with a very pretty -- though obviously also very hot (temperaturely speaking) proprietress. This gal had a three-or-four year old daughter whose big black eyes will break many hearts in years to come, I predict. We chased more crabs on the beach and arrived in time to save the day (in terms of our wilting foodstuffs -- and more-to-the-point, our beer).
I took a walk to the back of the property to see how pineapples grew. The plant is like a western yucca and about the same size, though reddish, with the pineapple itself taking its place in the center where the yucca seed-pod would be.
Hiding behind the pineapple patch in some woody slash was a colony of crabs -- the largest about five or six inches across. These had black backs, red bodies. purple claws, and a pair of yellow eyes on half-inch stalks. Nearby was a black iguana and further, Amato found a pair of ground-nesting baby birds so well camoflauged, we almost stepped on them. They remained perfectly still while three of us gawked at them from a distance of one foot. No parent birds to be seen.
Night fell before the full moon came out about three hours later. There isn't a city for fifty miles so the night was black and stars were like white lasers in the black ceiling of a sky. The Milky Way was prominent and dense with light. Fireflies make you think you're seeing shooting stars everywhere until you realize what they are. I tried to find the North Star, but a light mist was on the northern horizon and I couldn't find it where I knew it should be. (We're at about 9 degrees N, so Polaris is pretty close to the horizon and easily covered with ground mist or light clouds). Epifania did point out the Southern Cross, though. She called it something else in Spanish (Estrellas Sur?). It was higher in the sky than I would have guessed -- maybe 15 degrees. Awhile later, the full moon came out and there was light aplenty (good to trek the thirty yards to the bathroom by -- which, now down to drinking just beer, I was happy for).
For breakfast, Margarita dished up a delightful omelette of ham, onion and other ingredients that made me think of the best of Adam's Mountain Cafe in Manitou Springs, CO -- my favorite breakfast place of all time. I made the comment that "we're eating better here than at home" -- and we were. We all had seconds. The coffee, of course, was incomparable -- except maybe to Kona, from Hawaii.
Off to the lagoon again! This time, the current was strongly outgoing toward the ocean. We stayed close to shore. (And I kept an eye out for the predators of the nightmare Isabel created for me). Swimming against the current is like swimming in a flume. It feels good, but you're not getting anywhere. Amato walked off across the sand spit separating the lagoon from the ocean. I went to retrieve my hat, as I felt the beginnings of a sunburn on my face. Looking back, Amato is midair in a dive at them and the gals are screaming! Sneak attack!! Splash!!
We stopped on our way to our campgrounds to swim in the surf. The surf is pretty benign here. The biggest waves getting to only three feet or so. Still, three of our party of five didn't swim. Amato and I were out where the waves were breaking. I waved to the others to come out and Epifinia -- reluctantly, I thought -- did. We played in the waves for a couple minutes, when one of the larger ones dunked her. She was within a few feet, so I pulled her up and asked if she liked playing in the surf: "Te gusta?" She nodded her head with a big forced smile and wide-open eyes that gave me my answer -- "Ahh maybe, but I'd rather sit about and drink noni juice for an afternoon."
After a nice fresh-water shower to wash away the sticky salt-water, I spent sometime alone sitting under a flat thatch-covered sunshade watching the sea and the birds. How far we've come, I thought. Two years ago the tech crash seemed like the end of our world. Today things aren't any better in that world. But here we sit enjoying the tropics, living a vacation, sand between our toes. I watched a flight of four brown pelicans skimming inches over the waves. Flap, flap, flap, cruise. Flap, flap, flap, cruise. Overhead a frigate bird soared, looking somewhat like an ancient pterodactyl, with its angular wing structure and long trailing tail feathers.
Even Tax Day is behind us. Life is very good!
Kent McNaughton is Chief Correspondent for the Colorado Freedom Report's Panamanian bureau.