backing up to the island


These cookies were made at a factory in Abilene, Texas. The factory employs many hard-working refugees, many of whom I worked with while I lived there. The fact that we were in Panama eating the cookies I watched my African friends make in Texas kind of blew my mind. I sent this photo to my friend in HR at the factory. She appreciated.



I happened upon a saved document yesterday, a bit about impressions after a week on Isla Taboga, an island off the coast of Panama City.  I had gone with my friend Travis, and for a couple of weeks it was just the two of us waiting for our other two friends to arrive on the ferry.  It was supposed to end up on my blog exactly two years ago, but because of lack of internet on the island it stayed on my hard drive.  It’s a bit heady, but it took me back to some of those first emotions after arriving to an island that felt a world away.  I thought I might share it now, where for me it stands out starkly against the Armenian winter that is fast approaching.

Expectations.  Every time you imagine a place it is different than what you expected.  Every time.  The real always affords a more complete picture for the mind’s eye, the mind’s ear, its nose, tongue and fingertips.  The mind’s map has streets; the mind’s census has a list of the mind’s names for men and women (the lady at the ‘China shop’, the umbrella guy, the men who drink by the park gate).  You had some very sparse collection of these things before in your pre-arrival ideas.  Now those are gone and replaced.

I have been here one week now, long enough to have the new set of perceptions, short enough to remember the old ones.

The pre-arrival ideas of a beach front house which let out onto a long sandy beach that reached towards the horizon, the back door that leads out onto a sandy terrace, the surroundings a tangle of green, thick enough to hide us from everything, they are all replaced.  Now there is the real house.  The house up the hill on a thin road, the pad locked gate with pink flowers running up chain link, the porch where we sit with our light dinner and watch the tuna boats at dusk turn on their crisp lights which glitter  over the water in the straight, they have stepped in and given the tangible Taboga.

There are two rooms.  I took the one with the double bed which I’m beginning to believe has tangible bugs in it tangibly biting red marks in my tangible skin.   I will tangibly wash the sheets today, I think.

The kitchen is small and remarkably clean.  The living area provides a place to sit and read and opposing padded wicker armchairs which are the perfect perch for the daily Scrabble game.  Travis has yet to beat me, but his moment is coming.  I am warding it of with brain-storming sessions on eight letter words.  I am saving ‘xenolith’ for a special occasion.  The radio has only two volumes: soft and take-the-wall-hangings-down-and-cover-your-ears-because-this-is-ungodly.  So we use my computer when need to hear something besides our own voices.  We have watched one movie so far.

Our neighbors sit out all weekend on the porch and get louder with greater quantities of dark wine and cerveza. Most of the people who live in the pueblo are aloof to our presence having seen us before, or at least someone very similar who came and left and will come again.  We have met some really interesting people.  A couple vacationing from Sacramento who go fishing and who invited us over last night to watch the presidential debate over tea and Snickers.  A couple of Panamanian college guys in for the weekend from the city who let us sit on their porch and listen to their Beatles compilation.  An American woman who has lived here for three years with her husband and her german shepherd.

Our first walk to the beach was very tangible.  Sitting down to the high tide we surveyed a mix of coconuts, beer bottles and twisted plastic bits. That we were not removed far from civilization was evidenced by the debris and further confirmed by Aunt Jemima floating half full in the surf.  The beach was frank,  ‘We are what we are; you are here and will need to adjust your perceptions.’  Consider them adjusted.

On our second and now daily trips to the beach, Travis and I have been received by the beach with a more laid back tone.  The reminders of potato chips, Coca-Cola, and most of all alcohol vary in frequency, but generally, with the first trashy message already taken, the beach let us off the hook and showed us instead the crabs, old boat hulls, sea shells and sun that we’d hoped for.   Now we stay there for hours at a time, reading, dozing, walking, swimming, collecting.  We watch the brown pelicans ride drafts, the ferry come in and go out, and the tide rise to our feet.  The sun is out, and we have enjoyed a beach dotted with umbrellas and the same beach abandoned, leaving us floating in our own globe of island paradise.

These daily beach times are a change in my perception as well.  I had hoped for more time in the city.  I am American, after all, and how would I get along without a plan, without a schedule of productivity.  My pre-arrival expectations are again put out.  What I thought would be afternoons volunteering in city barrios is now all day at the beach.  I am embarrassed really.  Searching out the opportunities that were set in my mind has turned out like digging for a shoe I might have left out on the sand last night.  I will dig, but likely, the tide has pulled it out into the sea leaving me to accept the loss and make the most of one shoe.  Most days the sea offers clear sky, some nice shells and a laze on the sand.  Some days the tide pulls up a used condom.

So I am taking what opportunities I can and waiting for tomorrow’s surf.

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