The Crusoe Conversion
By Carol L. Bowman
We looked beneath the dock for a canoe, kayak or any water-worthy craft, ready for an emergency escape, but found none. Panic of the coming darkness welled up within me. The boat’s captain pulled the cord and the sound of the 12-foot panga’s outboard motor bounced off the waves as it sped from the dock. The departed, our daytime caretakers, waved ‘adios’ to the stranded, us. My legs wobbled, as I grabbed my husband’s hand and squeaked out my fear, “My God, what if they don’t come back in the morning?”
The comforting hum of the generator had fallen silent. Silhouetted in the shadows of the dimming light, six wild-caned cabins with guava branch roofs sat perched atop pylons over the Caribbean. Only one balcony door stood ajar, swimsuits draped on the railing, flapping in the warm breeze. The other five bungalows, bare and vacant, reminded us that being marooned on a deserted isle didn’t happen by accident. We researched it, planned it and paid a considerable sum for it, but the excitement I felt during daylight slipped into anxiety as blackness crept around us.
The staff, Marco our waiter, Ceci our cook and Ishmael, the skipper, had left for the night. They returned to their homes on Corazón de Jesus, one of 365 Kuna Yala islands scattered along Panama’s San Blas Archipelago. We had selected Kwadule, the 36 year-old tract of sand and palm, an infant within the scope of island formation, for our type ‘A’ personality cleansing. We retreated to our cabin, brightened by the glow of oil lamps that Ceci had already lit, and settled into rockers on the terrace that hovered over the rhythmic sea, to reflect.
Sparkling stars in the night sky provided the backdrop for our discussion. Recalling Daniel Defoe’s description of Crusoe’s days of desperation, I started with, “Which one of us came up with this crazy idea, anyhow? I know we wanted ‘marooned’ and we ached for ‘deserted’, but now that we’re here, what’s there to do but count sunrises and sunsets?” Going from our usual ‘hit the ground running, grab public transportation, and soak up the local culture’ to total isolation without distractions felt strange, unnatural, even scary.
“Well, we have two choices,” Ernie said. “Either we embrace Kwadule’s lure or go mad.”
“I didn’t realize that turning off the generator and leaving us alone in the dark would be part of the equation,” I said. “Carol, I think that fits the definition of marooned and deserted.”
We reviewed scenes from our morning arrival to ease the tension. Despite the pre-dawn hour, the Paitilla Municipal Airport in Panama City had bustled. We waited with four Kuna women for the daily 30-minute air-taxi, a six passenger Cessna that flew across the Isthmus to the islands. The indigenous ladies wore traditional, hand-sewn mola blouses, brightly colored skirts, gold nose rings and bands of orange beads tightly binding their forearms and calves. Recollections of how our eyes bulged as the plane landed on a perilous, narrow sandbar and came to a screeching stop just shy of dumping us into the sea, brought needed laughter.
Ishmael waited in his motor boat to whisk us away to our ‘personal’ island. After loading the allotted twenty pounds of luggage and snorkeling gear, we felt the pump of adrenalin as we skimmed across the turquoise Caribbean. First sight of Kwadule, the cabins, Kuna crafted hammocks strung between palms and the crystalline beach beckoned us to leave the stresses of hectic lives behind. But excesses of ambition and impatience do not dissolve quickly.
Urges exploded to explore the island. We raced to our cabin, shoes and watches fell away, bathing suits donned, gear grabbed. The island measured an area smaller than our two acre lot in the US. Within twenty minutes we had surveyed every inch; another fifteen to collect shells on the beach and a full hour to snorkel around the circumference of this patch of sand. Now what?
One look at Ceci’s shocked expression when we popped into the tiny hut designated for meals had revealed that our Crusoe conversion needed work. Thankful that Marco had already dived for our food, two crabs and two warm-water lobsters, she quickly prepared ‘comida’ for this energy-driven duo. A couple of hares had arrived on the island, but anything faster than a tortoise didn’t belong here. Who knew the art of relaxation could be so difficult?
After that first night’s fitful sleep, I heard the sweet sound of a sputtering outboard motor and screamed a relieved welcome to the returning staff. Ishmael sensed our restlessness. He offered to take us to El Tigre Island, the central hub of Kuna Indian commercial affairs, where women hand sew molas, wildly-colored layered materials, that they sell to viable markets.
As El Capitan tied the boat to the El Tigre dock, the village mayor greeted us. The Kunas’ grasp of capitalism became obvious when the chief spouted off the list of island regulations: $10US to snap village landscape photos, $25US to use a video camera, close-up individual shots cost $1US each. Pay up or relinquish your camera and no bargaining on the price of molas. After a brief trudge through the sandy streets, we quickly tired of the ‘hard-sell’ business of El Tigre. I longed for the solitude of Kwadule and begged Ishmael to take us ‘home.’ Signs of the tortoise emerged from the hare.
The staff’s departure that evening proved less traumatic, almost welcomed. Ceci had prepared the national Kuna dish, Tulle Massy for us, using freshly caught red snapper that Marco had speared that afternoon and coconuts just fallen. Feeling completely satisfied with full bellies, Ernie and I lingered alone after dinner, played dominoes by lantern and sipped bottles of Panamanian beer. We didn’t even miss the generator.
By day three, we surrendered to slow-motion. We lolled in hammocks, lounged on beach chairs parked in the shallows of the sea, and allowed incoming tides to swamp over us. I even tossed my book in the sand. Licking fingers of warm butter dripping from bowls of succulent she-crab replaced frenzied burdens.
The Crusoe Conversion complete, a new panic erupted on the day we had to leave Kwadule. Where did I put that “Type A” personality?