Panamantics

def/: Panamantics: the antics one might get up to in Panama. For example: “Gosh Geoff, it’s a long time until our Panama Canal transit still, shall we engage in some Panamantics?”

They were naked as the day was hot, and the day was very hot.

I hopped between feet to negate the scorching white sand, watching the two wrinkly bottoms wiggling further down the beach. These were the first sailors we’d seen for days, and I was seeing a whole lot more than I’d bargained for.

I’d spotted them walking on the east side of the island where Blue Eye was anchored, and had hastily swum ashore in pursuit, running across hotter-than-the-sun sand as they made their way around to the west beach where, unbeknownst to us, their boat was anchored. These people might be our only way of escaping this paradise any time soon. And they were starkers.

A circumnavigation sees some extraordinary situations arise, but becoming stranded on what was – to all intents and purposes – a desert island, with the only prospect of exodus presenting itself in the form of two nudists (The Nudes from here on in), was a first. It was the climax to a series of strange happenings during our time in Central America.

We’d been in Panamanian waters for over a month, though it was never our intention. See the coveted San Blas islands, get to Cristobal for the start of the Panama Canal, and get through to the Pacific Ocean. That was the plan, and a sound one it was too.

But March is the busiest time of year to transit the busiest canal in the world, and unsurprisingly a 32-foot sailboat doesn’t feature too highly amongst the priorities of the officials, facing an endless stream of cargo ships, oil tankers and military vessels. That, and it helps if when asked to wire them the exorbitant fees to secure your transit date, you actually wire them the exorbitant fees. Something of a faux pas on my part.

Downcast and frustrated as March progressed and we did not, we went in search of some Panamantics along what turns out to be a spectacular coastline. When the thousands of canal workers flocked from the world over, much like us they were taken aback by the exquisiteness of the land. Indeed, Ferdinand de Lesseps, the Frenchman responsible for both the Suez Canal project and the birth of the Panamanian one, described it as “La plus belle region du monde.” The most beautiful region in the world.

*

It was in the Rio Chagres we first found this untold splendour. The murky, alligator-infested waters might not sound enticing – and indeed they accounted for a swimming-sabbatical on our part – but as we followed the river for miles through the verdant, unblemished jungle overflowing with life beneath, within and above the magnificent trees, the stresses of the Panama Canal abated. You’d never have known half the world’s shipping was just a few miles away, were it not for the giant dam at the river’s end.

Tranquillity did not prevail, however, for nature makes a noisy neighbour. If it wasn’t the squawking of the pairs of parakeets patrolling the skies, then it was the choir of howler monkeys that were prone to thunderous choruses of shouting at any stage of the day or night.

I submitted to this cacophony one morning and sat out on deck to watch the rainforest come to life: butterflies fluttered past on wings as big as book pages; blue herons stood motionless in the shallows, awaiting breakfast to swim close-by; and a troop of white-faced monkeys made a quiet and precarious journey high above the river bank, leaping from tree to tree, one after the other. I secretly hoped to hear the plop of one of the clumsier primates toppling into the water below, met by shrieks of laughter from his fellows, but they never fall do they.

As tempting as a hike through this vibrant jungle was, we had already learnt of the dangers of the Panama wilderness. Some weeks before we’d ascended through a thick rainforest to a grassy field on the hilltop, a vantage point from which we enjoyed panoramic views of ocean and land alike. Moments later, however, we found ourselves scampering back down in giddy fright.

I had been just mere inches from stepping on a sleeping snake (that in hindsight was perhaps more startled by us than we were of it), which had proceeded to launch its six-foot black body vertically upwards to a height I had no idea snakes were capable of, before bolting off at a speed I had no idea snakes were capable of. In enacting our own frenzied escape, Will – having completely forgotten about the not-insignificant spider that we had cautiously evaded on the way up – resultantly came to paths with two of the jungles formidable residents in quick succession.

Caught in a spiders web before, caught in a police car this time. Anchored just along from the aforementioned Rio Chagres dam, we could access land and civilisation if we were happy to risk using Bottomless Dinghy II in the alligator-lurking waters (to read of Bottomless Dinghy I, please see A Tender Subject, and more or less apply the same principles to attain how BD2 came about). Perching himself carefully atop the inflated square with oar in hand, Will rowed ashore for a stroll, as James and I attended to overdue jobs on board.

He soon reappeared on the riverbank, but in the company of three authoritative-looking men who would shortly be joined by a further two. The gathering looked tense even from afar, with Will repeatedly chastised for attempting communication with us, and in a sign of solidarity for our detained friend we abandoned our tools and watched developments from our stranded viewpoint with a party-size tub of peanuts between us.

Will would cheerily recount later that they had accosted him for being unable to present them with a passport when stopped on the roadside. Upon driving him back to the river and finding Bottomless Dinghy II as the only means of accessing Blue Eye, however, the men were plainly uncertain of proceeding protocol.

A hilarious scene then unfolded, Will later described, whereby the five uniformed and armed men bickered over who should go in the dinghy with him, distrusting him to go alone but equally averse to balancing on the alligator-lunch-plate themselves. One would slam down his phone and badge on the bonnet of the car, reluctantly resigned to the responsibility, before finding a vehement line of attack to subjugate a colleague, who would in turn display despondent compliance followed by last-minute denial.

Sadly, no officials were eaten by alligators that day. The scene ended anticlimactically with Will retrieving the passports on his own and our being inexplicably expelled from that part of the river. The incident somewhat epitomised the problem we found with Panama as a whole: a country of sumptuous loveliness, populated by an officious and uncompromising bureaucracy. Nevertheless, up until that point not a single sea-anchorage could hold its own against the delights of our maiden river cruise.

*

But that was before we stumbled upon Isla Escudo de Verugas, where I stand – or rather hop – now. I say stumbled, because we never intended to come to this barely-populated island, comprising an impenetrable tropical green forest, skirted by golden beaches, and encircled with a peppering of tall-standing rocks that are reminiscent of those found on Southeast Asian postcards. There is just a handful of wooden huts that home the polite inhabitants, who make a quiet and simple living from the land and sea, only making the occasional visit to the mainland whose mountains could be seen wrapped in cloud on the horizon.

And we couldn’t get over there. We had limped into this bay on fumes, setting the anchor no longer as cruisers but as castaways. The windless passage from the Rio Chagres guzzled significantly more diesel than usual, and had led to our seeking refuge on this random island we knew little about, other than it was conveniently placed.

It was just about the best mistake we ever made. Days were passed with snorkelling in the swimming-poolesque waters; explorations around and through the charming caves that permeated the headlands; and of afternoons spent in a hammock under palm trees, on a long and deep beach exclusively to ourselves, with an endless supply of coconuts. In months to come we’d realise that this was the setting of the opening scene for BBC Planet Earth II’s first episode concerning the green-fingered sloth, and even their state-of-the-art cameras struggle to capture quite how incredible the island was.

We never met the sloths, but the small population of locals were welcoming and friendly, albeit a little curious. Daily, three or so of them rowed up to Blue Eye in their canoe crafted from a sole tree trunk, but rather than embark upon any conversation or salesmanship, they would innocuously hover alongside, mutely staring at both us and our boat. We tried striking up conversation in asking for diesel, unsurprisingly to no avail, and when all other avenues of limited-Spanish chit-chat were exhausted, we generally just stared back. Six eyes gazing across at six eyes in complete silence, until they would exchange some nervous grins between themselves… then with us… and then quietly row off. Quite peculiar.

Very occasionally, though, they might have fish to sell. One afternoon we bought three fresh lobsters for $10 – a steal if you consider an individual lobster dish in any restaurant will always be in excess of $25. A place where fresh lobster can be bought cheaply and diesel not at all, we mused after dinner, is surely justified of paradisiacal status.

We did, however, have to leave at some point. What had at one time seemed like an eternity until our Panama Canal transit now felt unsettlingly near, and with no sign of a returning wind our departure was solely dependent on the acquisition of diesel.

Indeed, such thoughts ran through my mind as I watched The Nudes get closer to their boat, and the possibility of diesel slip away.

Four courses of action came to mind. One: be extremely British about the awkward predicament by swimming back home and patiently awaiting the next boat, upon which there would hopefully be diesel-harbouring, clothe-donning, kindly sailors. Two: chase after The Nudes unabashedly to confront them with our embarrassing dilemma, hoping they would not all of a sudden find themselves in one too, on account of their exposed nethers. Three: to allow for the possibility of such a consequence, I could rummage through all this rubbish that has – heartbreakingly – been washed up onto the shores, for some clothes to cover up their Adam and Eves upon any potential-humiliation. Four: get us all batting from the same crease, so to speak, by baring all as well, and running along the beach after them, crazed and naked.

Alas no, none of these would do, I despaired. They were too cowardly, too bolshie, too weird and much too weird, in that order. But a fifth option uncovered itself as they made their way down the beach to the sea… “A swim-chat!” I sung to myself gleefully. The water could cover all as we discussed a diesel price, I rejoiced, sprinting after The Nudes once more.

As it transpired, there was little need to have agonised so intensely for so long. Despite my impeccable timing – allowing all bits to be below the waterline before they realised I was there – the man came striding right back out of the cover of water to greet me, and stood there hands on hips in uncomfortable proximity. I glanced at their flag: German. Why are all the naked sailors I engage old German men? Another way of framing this, I suppose, is why do I engage old naked men? (Again, see A Tender Subject.)

Diesel, was the answer this time, but for all the hullabaloo, the man couldn’t spare me a drop. They had only enough for their passage back to Colon where they would be winterising the boat and flying home. That’s German efficiency for you, I thought to myself. Employing some of my own nation’s efficiency – that in conversation – I allowed the exchange to run for the bare minimum of time so as to not appear either rude or like I felt there was anything odd about the state of affairs (which really were very odd indeed), all the while frantically assessing the appropriateness of a handshake at the close of it. At least there’s nobody to see this, I consoled myself.

As we said farewell, luck was wished with eye contact steadfastly maintained, and hands, it turns out, were shook. I started back up the beach, pleased at least to have tried, only to realise the family of canoe-going locals had gathered in the doorway of their hut, watching the abnormal exchange. I greeted their stares with a sheepish nod of the head, before scuttling off, and it so happens they never paid us another visit after that.

*

Not that we were around much longer. Fortunately, the day after The Nudes left, another sailboat arrived carrying a rare breed of human – clothed Germans with fuel to spare – allowing us to wave goodbye to the spectacular island we’d had to ourselves for the best part of a week and resume our circumnavigation.

We gratefully passed through the tremendous gates of the Panama Canal a few days later, and as they closed behind us so did our Caribbean Sea chapter. Those eccentricities now over, it was out into the Pacific Ocean where the next lot could begin.

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