June 18, 2011
Patchy camouflage, black waterproof boots, hunting knives tucked into the back of hiking vests, a machete, rifles, bottled water, chocolate and four armed-escorts…it’s a world away from Spice’s usual ‘spur of the moment’, shorts and T-shirts clad, “grab your thongs and let’s blaze a trail!” trekking party. One minute Dad and I are slipping over wet, flat boulders circling one of the humid, jungle-ridden Pearl Islands off Panama…shortcutting our way back to the dinghy before the tide rises…and the next we’re iguana spotting with a “two in front and two behind…and the machete guy goes first” military escort. “You expecting trouble?” Dad half-jokes looking pointedly at their array of weapons as we leave the beach and head into the forest…but it’s just protocol, in case they encounter drug-runners whom they’re on a lookout for.
Standing in the midst of dense tropical forest, a light rain falls…adding to the steaminess of the forest floor. Our faces drip with sweat as we arch our heads, scanning trees for the giant mossy-orange coloured iguanas known to crawl along the thick branches. We’re given water and Snickers bars…mossie spray…and the guys fix our shoes, which keep breaking as we slip up and down muddy creek beds. We teach them some English…explaining the merits of eating Australian kangaroo…they teach us Spanish…promising they’ll find an iguana and cook it for us. We laugh…I don’t realize they’re serious.
Our machete amigo slashes through the overgrown path…the ground is crumbly, wet and uneven…fruit-laden trees tower above us almost blocking out the already overcast light. Suddenly he stops and points up a tree where he’s spotted one…I spot it finally but this guy’s vision is amazing! He’s had practice picking them out. The guys spot one that’s low down in a tree. Scrambling through tangly undergrowth, they grab the tree trunk shaking it back and forth. I can’t see anything but I feel the thump of the iguana landing on the ground…apparently this stuns them so they’re easy to catch. While they bind its legs, I touch the scaly, still warm skin…they’re beautiful creatures and this one is over a foot long. I’m sad but try getting into a Bear Grylls frame of mind…it’s important to appreciate where what we eat comes from.
Later that evening we dinghy back to the military headquarters where we’re invited to join the iguana-eating. The headquarters are the only buildings on the island. An ex-drug runner previously owned the sprawling house and outbuildings…with a pool, gym, and stunning views of the beaches surrounding the island, it doesn’t seem a bad place to work! We’re shown around, made to feel welcome and invited to use their gym. “Anything you need…just ask” they tell us cheerfully…I think their happy to see some new faces. Apart from guarding the islands and being on lookout, the military have time to fish, trek and swim. We are warmly welcomed and give them a plate of chocolate cake we’ve cooked. Bowls of hot iguana stew are placed in front of us…it’s been cooked in a delicious sauce and tastes like really chewy bits of curled up chicken. Some of the workers play an impromptu game of soccer on the grassy cliff flat as the sun sets.
A few days are spent on Isla Las Perlas (the Pearl Islands) seeing the occasional boat…but otherwise it’s fairly uninhabited. In the past, African slaves were brought to the islands for pearl harvesting…now it’s a tranquil sprinkling of shell encrusted, bird-laden islands. Sandy beaches border pockets of jungle filled with coconut and banana trees…we discover wild bananas on one island. As we stand still in the midst of trees, we see and hear an incredible variety of Central American birds. At Isla Mogi Mogi, we anchor the dinghy off a nearby rocky island, which disappears when the tide rises, and jump over for a snorkel. As I swim along the edge of a shallow reef, huge fluoro blue-green parrot fish zigzag by…schools of silver fish linger on the sandy floor, and tiny reef fish chase each other off prime coral pieces as they vie for reef food. So many fish! I try catching one for dinner off our transom step one evening, with a hand line and some flour-water dough for bait, but it’s too murky…I give up quickly. We do catch a little bonito on the 50-mile sail back to Panama though…enough dinner for three hungry crew.
Spice sits at anchor at Las Brisas de Amador (Panama) for a few more days as we make final preparations to leave for the Galapagos Islands (Ecuador). Our spinnaker pole arrives, we farewell other yachties making the same South Pacific crossing, and keep a close eye on the weather. Most days begin as windless, humid and hot with gusty squalls setting in by afternoon. One morning, all sitting in the cabin, we hear a “boom!” and Spice shudders. As we rush outside, we’re shocked to see a beautiful, dark blue 70-foot yacht has hit us broadside. Fenders are rushed forward as the wind continually pushes their boat backwards onto ours…their engine is useless with their anchor still down and their anchor chain wrapped around two other boats. Adrenaline pumps…everyone’s yelling as the blue yacht bounces between others. “Dad’s using himself as a human fender Quick quick quick!” we yell as a dinghy holding a French couple barely escapes being squashed between our boat and another as they try and help. My hands shake as I try unknotting our dinghy from Spice…it’s about to be crushed and there’s tension on the rope…loosened just in time, Jade jumps in as it pops away to freedom…whew! Someone radios for assistance and eventually the blue boat cuts its anchor chain and is towed away. The rest of the day Dad spends untangling anchor chains and helping retrieve the lost anchor in murky water. Adrenaline rush had…no one injured…Spice unscathed…new friends made (quick way to meet people)…bumper cars in an anchorage isn’t all bad!
The morning before we leave Panama, Jade and I buy fresh fruit and veggies for a couple of months from the local produce market. The outdoor market has bulk produce, seemingly straight from plantations…huge sacks of potatoes, onions, mangoes, and oranges are bought. Hundreds of bananas still on the one stalk cost $5…pineapples four for $1…we have to hire someone with a cart to follow us round so we can get it all back to the taxi. A police officer voluntarily accompanies us…I think he’s worried about us being robbed. There are few westerners here…and communication is difficult knowing only a little Spanish. “Gracias…you’re very helpful”, we tell him gratefully.
Fuel-filled, food-stocked and ready to beat to windward…Galapagos here we come!
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