Monday, April 20, 2009

Isla Paridita

I’m not quite sure where to begin with this unique tale – and as a travel photographer, I often allow my imagery to tell much of the story. How I see things often conveys how I feel.

I have arrived on the island of Paridita, a small 65 acre island about 35km off shore from the City of Boca Chicas in Panama. What a tale, I have to admit, and having the absence of mind to actually describe what I am thinking, I will put my feet up on the table, face into the sunset and text. Although this adventure started many days ago, the actual movement toward the sea did not start until this morning – early – as the sun was just cresting the horizon. Actually, I left Texas four days ago, with my cameras in hand to see this island – and Panama – being described as a place of startling beauty. We arrived on the shore at precisely 3pm, and Don Valerio was there to meet us.

Don Valerio is a dashing older Panamanian man of 75 years with something like seven or eight sons by “many wives”, in his words – with his current wife Damarys, 42. Damarys was a slight 15 when she met Don Valerio back in the day, something she still grins about. Don Valerio carries a polished, sharp machete – a standard implement in Panama - and rarely wears shoes. Damarys does have a striking presence – a proud grandmother, smart, quick, and in charge.  We loaded up the boat and sailed the 35 minutes across the straits toward the Coiba Archipelago and Isla Paridita.

These islands here have been inhabited for thousands of years – long before the Spaniards landed here in the 1500’s. The earliest European explorers in fact landed here, and at the neighboring islands, for decades using these tranquil bays and island timber to repair their ships – and to avoid conflict with a more abundant native population on the mainland. 

When we arrived on the island, Don Valerio’s family was waiting for us on shore. In an awkward manner of landing, we backed the launch to the beach, and between tidal ebbs, jumped ashore – something I might imagine while exploring the Galapagos or some other fascinating and primordial place.  Our new helpers carried our bags and whatnot up to our accommodations – a half-mile path through the dense rain forest.

I’ve been to the tropics before – in Costa Rica, Bolivia and Brazil. This however was a mighty step backward in time. This island is virtually uninhabited – untouched - except for Don Valerio and his family. The wildlife and fauna here has been pretty much left to itself since the beginning. In the last one hundred yards of path, we climbed out of the forest onto an island point – sparsely populated by small thatch huts, an orchid garden and a remarkable view. As I sat on the cliff, with the sunset approaching, I was indeed at a loss for words.

These small cabanas and life here are pretty much off the grid with fresh well water and solar power – and no regular communication with the outside world at all. This island is now included inside of the Golfo de Chiriqui National Park – next to the Coiba Marine Park, a UN World Heritage site. It is one among a scattered fifty uninhabited islands, and the protection of the marine preserve ensures its pristine, untouched and natural state.  

My casita, called the “Cliff House” is a palm frond open air hardwood hut.  My porch hangs out over the ocean some fifty feet below. I have a blue hammock, a teak bed, mosquito netting – an open air shower and indoor plumbing. At night, there are low power LED lights and fans over the bed. The kitchen and common pavilion is equipped with refrigeration, hot and cold running water, a gas stove and your iPod interconnects with the stereo. Rustic – yes. Not for everyone – yes. Pretty darn cool – absolutely. An adventure of a lifetime – very nearly.

Enrique, one of our helpful staff, made arrangements to get some fish, and promptly delivered a couple of fresh filets of Pago(Snapper). As the sun prepared to set to the West, a deafening chorus of locust’s whirs, frog chirps and bird songs filled the air. And as soon as the sun set beyond the horizon, it stopped. And within thirty minutes of that, lightning illuminated the surf, thunder cracked and it rained for much of the night. There is an abundance of crabs here, and they run around nearly everywhere. As the evening wore on, it rained harder and harder – and as I sat on the picnic bench in the kitchen, I watched this one palm frond that was hanging inside from the garden. Rain poured off the thatch roof and onto the palm frond, diverting the water like a gutter onto the kitchen floor – dripping, bouncing back and forth, waving in the breeze and glistening in the low kitchen lights. It was a memorable moment. 

I’ve been exploring now, hiking to different parts of the island. And while I was walking around a small fresh water lagoon, an oddly decorated place with all manner of plant parasite – orchids, bromeliads, fern and moss living in the trees, a giant iguana dropped out of the tree above me, landing right next to me – slapping loudly on the mud path – and then scurrying into the forest, huffing loud warning sounds along the way. And now, I am sitting in my hammock overlooking the sea – my computer in my lap – Frigate birds sailing by and waves crashing below.  

I would be remiss if I did not at least describe for you some of the things that should be expected here. There are a few bugs – and a dousing of Deep Woods Off is not a bad idea. When you are walking in the forest, or on the beach, or in your room – if you stand perfectly still for a moment and look – you may see movement. There really are a billion crabs here – harmless of course - and they cruise across the forest floor, the sidewalks and the beaches in abundance. There is every variety of hermit crab, fiddler crab and burrowing crab – and more. In the forest and around the fresh water (cienagas) lagoons, there is a cane palm called Cana Brava  (the n has a n-yeah!) – that has more thorns than you can shake a stick at. The forest is dense and beautiful – with some old growth stands towering aloft. The beaches are a pristine and soft black sand. Coconut palms line most of the beaches – bananas, orchids, bromeliads, ginger and the like grow wild nearly everywhere and line the many accessible paths. And then there are the birds. Frigate birds and buzzards sail the coastline from morning to night – Osprey on occasion. Small – what in Texas we call “field birds” – live in the forest, a complex variety of colorful creepers, humming birds and sparrow. 

In the days that followed I explored nearly all of the 65 acres in one way or another. I swam in the ocean, snorkeled in the bay, fished and relaxed. These islands are new on the geological scale - the water clear and the reefs void of weeds - composed of volcanic rock and coral. Tropical fish of every color adorn the sea bed - Parrot fish the most colorful of the lot. Limpets, snail and conch are abundant as well. Spiny Lobster and Sea Turtle are a common sighting - the turtles laying their eggs in the soft sand at certain times of the year. Although I did not sight a whale, it is my understanding that Whales migrate in these waters - the Park and region a destination for researchers and adventure travelers who seek places yet undisturbed by tourism and urban plunder.

And what may seem like a primitive place, I was not in want of anything. Not once did I crave the television or the internet. I wished only that my friends were here with me, so that they too could enjoy such a unique place. It is a place if introspective brilliance - where the blend of man and environment find harmony. And the kitchen can accommodate any menu.  

Although my Spanish is survival at best, I quickly developed an appreciation and respect for Don Valerio and his charismatic wife Damarys. Their life is primitive by American standards, but they are happy, healthy and proud - good parents and stewards of their land. On my last night, I was privileged with their company at dinner. And in the absence of the proper words - a look into the eyes, smiles and handshakes transcended the borders. And as I stepped toward the beach promising Damarys a copy of my Panama Book - she handed me a shell - small, brown and shiny. I had not seen its compare and it was beautiful. In her last smile, I could tell that we had become friends - I'd come from afar and we were now friends. 

My shell has made its way home - small, brown and shiny - and when my friends and colleagues see it here in my home and ask me from whence it came, I will say it came from friendship and Isla Paridita. 

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