I take a bus alone from Panama City into the jungle. One one-way ticket. My friend Guadalupe, a retired Spanish journalist who has been my tropical partner-in-crime for three months has returned to Spain, leaving me with a kiss on each cheek and a warning to stay safe.
The crowded bus terminal across from Albrook, a famous mall on the outskirts of Panama City is a disorganized Port Authority on acid. The old bus I board looks like something out of a Bollywood movie meets a Grateful Dead tour van from the 1960’s revamped for everyday travelers. All brocaded curtains, paisley patterned seats, gold, red, and psychedelic purple swirling over the interior.
We drive five hours through small towns nestled in palm trees, a trek that oddly reminds me of when I was in love with a girl in Toronto and would regularly take the endless bus ride from NYC through Upstate New York and across the Canadian border to see her. Youthful amor knows no geographical boundaries.
Now, waiting for me is a cheerful older ex-pat named Kippy, with short cut blonde hair and a gap-toothed grin in her beat up old truck blasting jangling Motown.
“We’re going to a party.” She announces, as I climb in.
When Guadalupe was here, I was able to hang out with Panamanians, the feisty ninety-four year-old matriarch of the small town Pedasi, an owner of a hostel who called me “Mi Rei,” my king, a guy from Chile who strummed guitar while I belted live karaoke in his cantina, American songs like House of the Rising Sun, Proud Mary and Mack The Knife. It seems now that Guadalupe is gone, that world is inaccessible to me. So I fall in with the expats.
After the concrete condos of Panama City, rising by the Pacific like some Miami Vice throwback, the cracked sidewalks and salt stung air, window washers rushing out at streetlights with homemade squeegees and buckets of sudsy water like the crackheads on Houston Street did when I was a kid, the countryside feels even more surreal and tranquil. Kippy and I stop at a roadside stand to buy giant bunches of pinkly stained lychees, and semilla de coco a new delicacy for me, a round white orb of coconut seed with a spongy texture and pure subtly sweet flavor.
On the beach, under the portico of a local cantina, a group of expats have gathered to party, throwing back rum and $1 beers. I haven’t been around this many white people in months and it feels overwhelming and a bit embarrassing. They form their own cohort and even though many have lived in the country for years, they don’t speak Spanish. I wonder how they go grocery shopping.
All the expats in the jungle by the sea seem to have ended up here for some shady reason. So have I, I suppose. No one leaves everything they know behind unless they want to escape something.
At her seventy-first birthday party on the beach, I meet Corey, a “California girl” and old school lesbian who tells me she used to have a gambling problem.
“What made you stop?” I ask.
“I lost my job and my house.” She says frankly, in her nicotine growl, going off to chain smoke another menthol.
There is Sammy, who arrives at the beach and immediately announces he has just gotten a blood test for HIV and herpes.
“I met someone.” He says giddily. “I’m doing it for her.”
After our third round of cervezas, I find out he is a New York Jew, like me, though originally from Israel and three decades older.
He and his parents emigrated to the Bronx of the 1950’s when he was a kid, then moved to Canada when he turned eighteen, so he wouldn’t be drafted in Vietnam.
“When I was eight years-old I got held up by knifepoint for milk and eggs I was bringing home to my mom.” He says.
He notices me noticing his tattoos, numbers across his inner arm and a semi-colon at his hairy wrist.
“The numbers were my father’s when he was in a camp. The semi-colon you should know as a writer.” He says.
“I do.” I say. “But what does it mean to you?”
“My son committed suicide two years ago. It means continuation. Life continues.” He says.
The sun sets over the sea and the green hills of Isla Iguana in the distance. The island looks so close under the bronze, violet and blood red rays it seems you could swim there, though you would die trying.
Terrible news filters in from the States. There is a certain anarchy among the ex-pats, escapees who have given up their country for another. Some try their best to ignore all American news, some rage against it. But all seem to live in a sort of tropical Brigadoon, a valley the outside world can’t penetrate.
It reminds me of an ill-timed trip my grandparents took me and my brother on my senior year of high school in 2003. We ended up in the Galapagos Islands on a small nature cruise touring islands desolate except for teeming wildlife.
On one of the few inhabited spots in the archipelago in a small internet café, I found out through an email from my dad that the United States had declared war in Afghanistan. Only two years after 9/11 had changed my New York childhood and teenage world forever, I cried in a roughly paved town square thousands of miles from home feeling angry and helpless all over again. War was the last thing I wanted, but how could I stop it?
Fifteen years later, on a different beach, someone makes a crack about sexual assault on the darkened porch. An older gay man talking about the priests of his youth molesting fellow choir boys.
“The whole time, I was like pick me! Pick me! Is something wrong with me that they don’t want to fuck me?” He says and everyone laughs uproariously.
I don’t and get sideways glances like I’m being a party pooper.
“I think it’s normal for kids to feel chosen or made special by abusers.” I say. “That’s part of the abuser’s power over their victims. I’m sorry you felt that way.” I tell him.
And as the chuckles around us fade, he nods quietly and says, “Thank you.”
“When I was a teenager we fooled around, but we were just figuring out what we liked and what we didn’t.” Protests a grandmother from Colorado. “If a boy and I were heavy petting and he did something I didn’t like, I always told him ‘no,’”
Though unstated, it is clear we are now talking about the recent hearings around the latest Supreme Court nominee.
“There’s a difference between normal exploration and being forced into a situation.” I tell her. “Some people don’t have the ability to say no while it’s happening, that doesn’t make it okay.”
“What about innocent until proven guilty?” She jabs.
“What about believing victims?” I ask.
“I was never a victim.” She says so vehemently it makes me wonder, if like the joke about the priests, there is some pain behind her bluster.
“Bet you didn’t think hanging around with a bunch of old people, you’d be having conversations like this.” Kippy takes me aside to order us more drinks.
“I spoke to my dad on the phone the other day about his artwork and how he used to correspond with a guy who was into phallic piercings to do a portrait.” I shrug. “He’s older than all of you.”
But as the party dies down, I think about generational ideas of sex. How this older crew who grew up with so much normalized repression and sexism have all been touched by abuse in some way and see it as a hard knock reality rather than something that needs to change.
Kippy drives me back in the dark, past swooping bats and the crooning melodic croaking of frogs. Guadalupe always sang back to them “Sapo cancionero, de la noche cantas tu melancholia.” Singing frog, in the night you sing your melancholy.
I think of being five and forced into a bathroom by a girl in my class who demanded to see my penis, being ten at a Mets game at Shea Stadium and a fat old man saying to me, “Hey kid, cute ass.” when other adults were out of earshot, being twelve and the odd pitch of my babysitter’s panting as she pinned me down in a game of wrestling, being thirteen and a homeless guy following me down the street offering “I’ll suck your dick for a quarter.”, being eighteen and an older gay friend pawing me whenever he got drunk, being twenty-seven and doing a reading in Philadelphia where the hostess promised me I had a room for the night, which turned out to be her bedroom she wouldn’t let me leave when I tried. How through all of these experiences and more, I felt like I was the fucked up one because I was a guy and shouldn’t I just enjoy it?
We reach the rusted black metal gate of Guadalupe’s property and Kippy keeps her brights on me as I trip up the path lined with palmeras, their fronds glowing poison green in her headlamps. I am alone in Guadalupe’s small house now.
That first night in my friend’s borrowed casita on her vast stretch of land I have nightmares I am being robbed, like I was when I lived in Bushwick, Brooklyn in my early 20’s.
Maybe it is Guadalupe’s paranoia infecting me. Before she left me on my own she warned “Pueblo chico, infierno grande.” Small town, big fire. Her house has been knocked over three times before, so maybe I am just being realistic.
I wake up to glaring sunlight, safe for the moment in my sweaty nightmare tossed sheets. I wonder how many other of the revelers from last night went home and dreamt of a world where we were violated. And if the lush beauty of the tropics will ever be enough to quell those visions.
Small towns always have secrets. And Pedasi, Panamá is no exception. Guadalupe, the retired Spanish journalist who pretends to be my aunt knows where all the bodies are buried. Sometimes literally. Her investigative instincts are still strong.
She tells me of the rich, old Frenchman who owns a hotel in the hills made entirely of bamboo and who has a penchant for underage prostitutes. Now he is dying of cancer and gets airlifted by helicopter to the nearest hospital for treatments that won’t save him. The bamboo is cracked and crumbling, parts of his hotel tumbling into the turbulent sea.
She tells of the family who owns the most land in and around town. A twisted yarn of greed, pistolas, inheritance as devilish as King Lear. They make my neurotic Jewish clan back in New York seem almost normal.
“The grandfather put his sister in the mental hospital even though she isn’t crazy, so he could steal all her land and dinero.” Guadalupe tells me. “He calls himself ‘El Pato Mas Rico’ because he saw the movie with the rich Donald Duck.
The best antidote to your own fucked up family is someone else’s.
Some nights when the town sleeps, we drive through the empty streets out on a dirt road towards the sea and she points into the dark to a bridge where a tourist was found dismembered over drugs, the pretty low buildings I know are white washed and brilliant in the sun where an expat hung himself.
Bats swoop like skydivers in charge of their own destiny. An owl eyes me from a wooden post, preening in the spot-lit beam of our headlights as we pass.
“Owls are good luck.” Guadalupe says.
But I know they signify change, seeing through people’s actions to their true intentions, death.
In exchange for secrets, a room in her rose red casita surrounded by palm trees, and mango groves, her delicious cooking, I help Guadalupe work the land. A good way to occupy my dream-filled head and steer it away from thoughts of the past and my uncertain future.
I coat palms with calcium (now prohibido because narcotrafficantes use it to mix with cocaine), I chop off old brown fronds with a machete to help new healthy shoots grow, wishing it was as easy to rehabilitate my life.
Guadalupe’s firetruck colored lawnmower is the same model as the one my grandparents had. Pulling the cord, making the motor rev to life brings back lost summers in Long Island, a place I can ever return to.
Their old house in Great Neck is gone now. Summers of gin and tonics, barbeques on the sagging wooden deck, my first real love and I swimming naked in their pool while my grandparents were in Europe. Tequila drunk photoshoots and after smoking joints with laughing friends, our tan legs dipped in the water.
Before all that, my parent’s wedding held before the swimming pool was dug out of the ground, a green cartoon Tyrannosaurus Rex floatie I paddled towards my grandmother’s open arms in, watching my friend almost drown the summer we were eleven.
That pool now fills my mind. I see it as I last saw it: coated in algae, dead leaves floating on the dark surface, a murky lagoon hiding the corpses of drowned birds.
This tropical lawn is vast. A distracting sea of Emerald City green hierba that seems to sprout six inches with every rain storm. These are shoots that resist deforestation, that fight to survive. I am learning from them.
Butterflies flit all around me and the lawnmower’s blades chop off the heads of twenty cornellias at once, the weeds whose wispy white heads hold seeds explode in a million wishes floating through the tropical sunshine.
What do I wish for? That our problems didn’t follow us no matter how far we travel, for a chance at freedom, for peace with the past, for a beer and Wifi.
On my Spanish burner phone, the only device with a somewhat reliable internet connection, my younger brother emails from New York to say my grandmother has an electric wheelchair, she’s running for council in the senior center where she lives now, she has her “mojo back.” But I wonder how many secrets she’s still keeping from our family. I had a front row seat to the deterioration of my grandparents and how much they hid.
Here, Guadalupe and I explore hidden beaches. We drive over lush hills with the unique curves of peaks once covered by ocean, towards the border with Costa Rica. In an even smaller town called Las Cañas, we perch in a canoe and a local fisherman guides us to a deserted island.
We walk through waist high beach grass, picking marañon and mangos. Our arms fill with fresh fruit. Across the island is a nesting ground for sea turtles, a pure white empty beach curves away into water the same extra azul as the sky. Misty islands rise far out in the sea.
Empty soda cans, amber beer bottles and chip bags litter the shoreline.
“Que triste.” Guadalupe says.
“Sí.” I agree.
“A man rents tents to tourists on the other side of the island.” She shares, “I heard he went crazy and sells drugs now.”
We collect as much garbage as we can. We spread towels and eat our fruit under the shade of a palm. I help Guadalupe, who at sixty-five has a bad knee, walk into the warm waves. We forget for an afternoon how destructive people can be.
The woman pretending to be my aunt tells me those are sex hotels on the side of the highway. They’re called “Tu y Yo” and “Paraiso Real.” I note the prices, marked on a sign outside: Seventeen American dollars for three hours/Thirty-five dollars for “Toda La Noche.” We keep driving.
I’m glad we have left Panama City behind. It’s like the city I grew up in and left, New York. But a New York long vanished, full of beautiful abandoned spaces, cracks in sidewalks, graffiti, shady characters and salt smell of ocean in the air.
We zip through mountains, one’s crags looks like a sleeping old woman, past roadside stands selling mangoes and cold coconuts towards the small town of Pedasi.
The whole country has been drenched in rain, lightning illuminating palm fronds against inky skies punctuated by glorious bright beach days. Rainy season in the tropics, you never know what you are going to get.
Guadalupe tells everyone she’s my aunt because she says it’s safer that way and maybe she’s right. She’s a retired Spanish journalist and television personality who’s interviewed some of the world’s leading political figures as well as hosted The Jackson Five on her television show “300 Milliones” back in the ‘70s.
“I used to be very famous, now I end up living like a gypsy in the country.” She tells me as she does over eighty on narrow highways lined with jungle and rolling pastures of cane sugar, corn and cows.
She has good reason to be paranoid. She’s been robbed twice on her campo, a big piece of land with tidy casitas guarded only by a rusted black metal gate. So I pass as her tall, grey-eyed nephew from the States and with my decent Spanish accented by the downtown New York bodegas of my youth, no one asks many questions.
After all, this is the land of Noriega, who died in a cell overlooking the Panama Canal. A land of drug lords and poverty, ghettos in Panama City still containing rubble from when Reagan bombed it in the ‘80s. A land where dead dogs line the highways, where pirates once burned down the old city and breezed along the coasts, a land stamped with the violence and greed of conquistadors before them and more recently the Panama Papers, dark money and lawlessness. Like so many others, I’ve come here to hide.
But it’s also full of heated beauty. Guayacan and Banyon trees silhouetted flaming against the sunset, nights full of stars and satellites, whales gathering off the coast in one of the deepest parts of the Pacific to give birth, pastel pink and blue cemeteries dotted with rich tropical flowers, warm people who insist on feeding me my favorite carimañolas, fried yuca patties stuffed with ground beef, iguanas crying in the night rich with fresh cut grass and promise.
I burn saint candles even though I’m Jewish, wish away my past and hope towards my future like a drunk leaning into the bottle. Most times, I am drunk sipping my tenth Balboa beer, my favorite, named for the conquistador who “discovered” Panama was the world’s only isthmus. A cradle of life full of sloths, crocodiles, snakes, butterflies, the country with the most species of animals on the planet.
In the jungle by the sea, I feel a peace I’ve never felt anywhere else.
Each crash of distant wave a lullaby helping me forget who I was in New York City. What I’ve lost and left behind. What, like so many adventurers before me, I hope to find in this part of the world they call Los Azueros.