One of the craziest damn terrestrial animals on our planet.
If there is a Creator, sloths have to be a testimony to an Ultimate sense of humor.
They are a true exception to any stretch of a Darwinian concept of survival of the fittest.
Not only do they seem incapable of outrunning any potential predator, they seem damn near incapable of catching much prey… and they are vegetarian!
Somehow, sloths manage to maintain a look that successfully sits atop the razor line between an irresistibly endearing smile and an absolutely indifferent look of complete stupidity.
We’d seen them at a distance on Bastimentos, but never face to face like here in the mangroves right next to Isla Joya.
You just can’t possibly do anything other than smile back.
And… a sloth with a baby? Get the fuck outta here…
Kris, who to be fair, does hold the title of longest data collector in the ongoing anthropological-sociological-psychological study of Steve, insists that sloths may be the first mammal she has encountered that is actually SLOWER than Steve.
Why would six gringos, four adults and two four year olds, one with a broken arm in a cast no less, be wandering around unaccompanied in the Panama jungle? On the surface, as well as both above and below the surface, this seemed like far more than a rather reasonable question.
The plan was a leisurely jaunt over the mainland from a dock just across the cove from Isla Joya (the same dock leading to Wild Bill’s infamous and now abandoned Jolly Roger Social Club) over to Green Acres chocolate farm. It was only about one mile directly across from our cove to Dolphin Bay and not more than twice that diagonally to Green Acres… what had been described to Sharon by a local as “a twenty minute walk on a path.”
Ninety minutes into the jaunt, Sharon decreed, “I have no idea where we are.”
I realized there had been much more confidence in her voice earlier, back at the dock when Bev had made a passing reference to a guide. I thought the answer at the time had been, “I know exactly where we’re going. We’re just following a path…”
After two hours, we had not seen a single person since being dropped off at the dock.
We had three phones with occasional momentary reception, but only enough to get a GPS update on our current location on Google Maps —- invariably it was not far from where the last point had been. Or to send a text —- Bev, we might be lost.
Sharon handed me the machete.
What had started off as a very discernible path leading from the dock into the dense jungle seemed to keep branching and branching. The general strategy had been to keep angling in the correct direction but also try to keep to the more established, current, and traffic-worn trail. Some trails eventually dwindled away to nothing, forcing us to backtrack. Others split off continuously.
Essen, the fourth adult in our party, reminded me of a rubber band as she stretched back and forth, shooting between her two four year old twins, who were themselves ricocheting in every direction through the jungle. Dylan and Melody, who was currently sporting a bright green cast on her broken right arm from a climbing mishap five weeks earlier, were still remarkably upbeat considering the terrain we were trudging through.
On an interesting side note, I did learn that, in Turkish, the word “stop” apparently means “just continue right on doing what you were doing”… hmmmm.
The distinction between a looking at a Google map satellite photo with a straight red line from point to point and actually physically walking between those two points with your own two feet never became more apparent.
By the time Sharon’s foresight to bring a machete was realized, it became all too obvious that we were ill prepared in almost every other way —- a hand held radio would have made sense… a reasonable supply of drinking water certainly wouldn’t have been ridiculed… I did have on a pair of running shoes but knee high boots now seemed like a smarter choice; by this point Kris had reverted to full scale primitive, opting to carry her Crocs and go barefoot… it was undoubtably a questionable environment for two four year olds with compliance issues, especially when one had an arm cast that needed to stay clean and dry…
Ultimately, a guide was the one thing we sorely lacked. It would have made everything else irrelevant because we would have only been on a twenty minute walk on a path!
Finally, I began to get a feel for clearing a path with the machete.
Only thirty minutes ago, I had taken point. As I recalled watching many movies featuring jungle-hacking trailblazers deftly cutting a swath back and forth through hostile vines and plants, I confidently swung the machete in front of me for the first time.
Nothing had prepared me for the violent shudder I felt through my right arm and dull clang I heard as the machete bounced harmlessly bounced off a tiny vine no more than an eighth of an inch wide.
What the fuck?
I looked at the vine. It was tiny. It did not appear to be made out of some alien alloy.
I looked at the machete. It was metal. It appeared to be newly sharpened.
I looked at Sharon. She was trying to suppress a laugh. “You have to cut diagonally.”
The second swing went through a one inch thick plant stem like butter. I smiled. This could be fun.
Three hours into the adventure, we had lost the path entirely. After a painstakingly slow descent down a slope far too dense and steep to be carrying a sharp object, we reached somewhat level ground. I had spent most of the time envisioning a sudden slip, only to see a machete sticking out of my belly upon standing. Fortunately, that did not happen.
Subsequently, we had decided to follow a small creek that —- in movies, at least —- always leads to a village. However, an enormous fallen tree now blocked our path, forcing us to divert back into the thick and relentless jungle.
We were getting no where, very slowly.
By this time, multiple texts had been sent to and received from Green Acres. Thankfully, their local employee Ocias (ironically pronounced Oh-see-us), whom we first met back in June, had already been deployed from the chocolate farm to retrieve us.
We kept pressing forward as best we could, but any semblance or sign of human life had been absent for quite some time. The direction we kept trying to go constantly seemed to be the densest wall of follage and growth.
Fortunately, any potentially dangerous critters, and I’m sure there were many that we never saw —- fer-de-lance and bushmaster snakes (both can be aggressive and fatal), scorpions, spiders —- all seemed to be more determined to get the hell out of the way of the thundering herd of pale outsiders than to defend their home.
Even the mosquitos appeared to have sympathy for the dumb gringos, leaving us unmolested.
Had the skies unleashed rain upon us, it would have been absolutely miserable. All things considered, everyone was still in good spirits and this still qualified as an adventure.
Eventually more than one person began to intermittently ask if anyone else had heard someone’s voice calling out.
It took a couple of stops with everybody standing still, listening, before we all agreed someone was yelling for us nearby.
Our salvation! We would not become food for the jungle today.
Ocias emerged from the jungle slightly to one side of us with a big grin on his face. He was wearing rubber boots and carrying a radio… smart guy. As we converged, everyone let out a big cheer.
Immediately, I noticed we were already on a path. Where the fuck had that come from?
During the long trudge that remained to Green Acres, Ocias kept taking photos with his phone… photos of things he saw along the way… photos of the ridiculous gringos he had pulled out of the jungle.
For the most part, he seemed rather amused by it all. And, though some particulars may have been lost in translation, at one point Ocias appeared to express concern for our being in the jungle alone, especially had night set in. Something about… the jungle is not for people at night… and something else about… jaguars y tigres.
Unbelievably, it seemed we purposefully strode for another thirty minutes —- up hills, through pastures, across mud bogs —- still always on a path, before finally reaching Green Acres… this time with someone who knew where they were going. In the end, it appeared that after three and a half hours of walking, we had actually ended up ten minutes farther away from Green Acres than we were when we started walking. Our first wrong turn must have occurred at the first branch in the trail…
Eventually we arrived at Green Acres. Four hours had passed since Bev dropped us off at the dock.
Still, during that four hours we had seen incredible untouched scenery, surreal looking trees and flowers, bizarre mushrooms, bats, lizards… truly primitive Panama jungle.
At the chocolate farm, we were surprised to learn from Carlos and Gary that Ocias had initially been unable to find us. After searching unsuccessfully he had returned to Green Acres empty handed and spoken to an older Panamanian guy who was on the property cutting wood. It turned out the guy was an ex-police officer who told Ocias that while on the force they had been trained to use a tried and true, surefire method for search and rescue.
Lick your finger and hold it up in front of you. The side of your finger that dries will face the direction in which you will locate the people you are searching for.
I asked for clarification. Had I heard that correctly?
Yes. Apparently, I had. That was how Ocias had located us.
I stood there frozen with what must have been more than a bit of a dumb look on my face…
Now, I had heard a similar method to determine the direction wind was coming from… but… for locating lost people? Really?
My jaw began to drop. But before the words are you kidding… or that’s ridiculous… ever got a chance to tumble out of my mouth, something occurred to me.
What the fuck did I know? I was one of the idiots who was lost! He found us.
“Ahhhh… yes,” I said instead. “Thank goodness for the old Spit Finger Search and Rescue Method.
After our visit at Green Acres, suffice to say there was no drama on the way back to Isla Joya…
After our new ground tackle had been installed, the first thing we did upon arriving back at the Red Frog anchorage was to drop anchor in thirty feet of water (almost the same spot we had dragged to over three months prior) and put out one hundred fifty feet of chain —- ten feet more than had ever even been an option before.
Big squalls? No worries…
Croc sightings? No worries…
About a size seven, I’d guess.
The second thing we did was lower Kris’ new SUP into the water! She had been trying for the better part of six months to acquire the perfect third option between swimming or using the dinghy to get off the boat. Up to now she had been relegated as an observer of other peoples’ freedom. Now she was finally the one wearing the shit eating grin.
Two days later we departed the Red Frog anchorage and arrived at Crawl Cay after having confidently navigated The Cut using the Navionics track we had saved from our previous trip in the opposite direction. We chucked out two hundred feet of chain, just because we could… and then laughed as we realized that, even so, we still had more chain remaining in the locker than we used to have available in total.
Crawl Cay represented the furthest we had ventured since arriving in Bocas del Toro. During the past six months, we had remained inside a ten mile perimeter from Bocastown. Now, for the first time, we were fifteen miles away.
After two nights there, we decided that the anchorage was a bit too exposed for the schizophrenic shifts in wind direction we currently were experiencing. So we very carefully inched our way from Crawl Cay through bays, around islands and between mangroves in water that ranged under us from six to sixty feet deep.
We had manually laid a course into our Navionics software, but much of the area had no depth soundings to go by. Many of the twists and turns we had plotted had been determined by studying corresponding charts in the well-known Bauhaus Panama cruisers guide which were created by superimposing recorded depth soundings he took over the top of satellite photos of the areas.
Despite being very helpful in setting a tentative course, in the end, every time we approached a questionable area or the depth gauge started shallowing up quickly, someone stood at the bow to act as spotter. Three hours and fourteen miles later, numerous anxious moments had resulted in only one actual emergency full stop and zero touches. Our Navionics course had proven true.
We were slowly becoming more confident in our ability to feel our way around, carefully picking and choosing a way though mangrove passages and mazes. With good light, minimal wind, patience and slow speed, we found ourselves willing to probe into uncharted areas we would not have felt very comfortable in a short time ago. If our draft was much deeper, a lot of places wouldn’t even be an option. Shallow draft… deep commitment. Whoop, whoop!
Our friend Bev was currently caretaking a house on a small private island for a few days as well as looking after the three resident dogs —- Quila, Spock, and Bug —- on behalf of the owners, two Canadian expats named Sharon and Roy who had purchased the island less than two years ago. Sharon needed to visit the nearby city of David for a short time. Roy, on the other hand, had been stuck in Canada for the past six months on what was supposed to be a short visit after Panama’s international borders shut down in response to the coronavirus.
Our destination, named Isla Joya, is a tiny island 0.8 acre in size, which pokes out of the water at the very back of the massive Chiraqui Lagoon. We tucked into a spot behind Isla Joya and its larger neighbor Isla Mono, in a relatively small but long cove with nearly three hundred sixty degrees of protection, where we knew we would find S/V Aseka already anchored.
The backstory of Isla Joya had all the makings of a farfetched blockbuster Hollywood movie except it was non-fiction. An American white supremacist calling himself Wild Bill managed to swindle money from someone by selling them property he didn’t own, and then fleeing the U.S., murdered a man in Costa Rica who had boasted to him about sneaking a briefcase of cash into the country. Once in Bocas del Toro, Panama, he embarked on a scheme to acquire properties. Posing as a potential buyer, Wild Bill would set up a meeting with the owner requesting they bring the property deed (in Panama, possession of the deed represents ownership of the property), then subsequently execute them and dispose of the body, or bodies.
Located just across the cove we were currently anchored in, on one of those very properties, Wild Bill had a bar called the Jolly Roger Social Club, which reportedly gained quite a reputation as a party location for years. The previous owner of Isla Joya was his final known victim. Her murder, and eventually the whole plot, was uncovered largely because the ex-boyfriend refused to accept Wild Bill’s story of the woman’s disappearance and continued to press the authorities.
Despite the dark outcome which culminated in numerous victims eventually being dug up on Wild Bill’s property, the silver lining was not only the fact that Wild Bill still resides in a Panama prison serving forty years for murder, but also the alignment of stars which, years later, allowed Sharon and Roy to accidentally stumble across a now languishing and well overgrown island while searching for property to buy. Eventually they were able to wade through all the confusion, ultimately purchase the island, and move in while they continue to repair and renovate the existing buildings.
We met Sharon once she had returned from David. Day after day for weeks, she continually offered her island paradise and endless hospitality to us. Her generosity was amazing, especially considering she had just met us.
Playing with the dogs — Quila, a nine month old Rottweiler; Spock, a four year old Papillon; and tiny Bug, a somewhat brain damaged, eternally suspicious and always yappy though oddly adorable something or another — became a source of daily entertainment… and inevitably raised voices.
In these Covid times of social distancing, hyper-diligence, and unprecedented isolation (not only from each other, but from what we are confident may or may not be the truth), it is encouraging… no, it is invigorating to know that strangers in completely different orbits can still become lifelong friends having to do little more than reach out.
Congratulations! Today is your day. You’re off to great places! You’re off and away!
So begins the first page of the Dr. Seuss book “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!”. As I try to wrap my head fully around the swirling ironies before me, I turn the page and think back.
Exactly thirty eight years ago today, that day arrived for both Kris and I when we went on our first date… October 2, 1982.
Two high school students, headstrong with the typically firm conviction they already had a grasp of how everything important in the world works, plowed forward with the same awkward certainty shared by millions of other teenagers. Of course, the sky was the limit…
You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.
Fast forward ten years or so to the Nineties. As the infernal reality for a young married couple of having to work in order to pay for the cost of living continues to dictate most of our day to day activities, a hunger to travel has already set in. A need to experience slowly begins to dictate our long term goals. Our mindset was changing from holiday tourists to traveling scuba vagabonds, but it would take over a decade for that evolution to fully take place.
It’s opener there in the wide open air.
I’m not sure when we first came across the Dr. Seuss book. It obviously wasn’t a memorable enough moment to stand out in either of our minds. However, the book itself was quite memorable.
Fast forward to October 2, 2008. Twenty six years after our first date. We have consciously chosen this date… the culmination of a five year plan to sell everything and leave the United States.
In so many ways it seemed like the final step of a long process. In reality, it was actually another beginning.
Oh, the places you’ll go! There is fun to be done!
For nine years —- as we travelled to incredible places, met unfathomably deep people, and soaked up life altering experiences —- we were simultaneously feeding two seemingly contradictory realities. We were changing while, at the same time, we were reinforcing that which we had always been.
Thousands of dives, amazing cultures, lifelong friends we were making from all over the planet, endlessly looking at things in new ways. How could we have waited so long?
At some point during those nine years, we stumbled across that Dr. Seuss book again on a store shelf, in SE Asia of all places… we bought it.
Yet, even when you are forging completely new ground half a world away from where you grew up, you can still find yourself coming full circle… the exact same situation in a totally different scene.
So be sure when you step. Step with great care and tact and remember that Life’s a Great Balancing Act.
Even paradise has its darkness. Rarely are things exactly what they seem. Everything is fleeting. Nothing is set in stone.
Eventually the new becomes comfortable… too comfortable. It becomes time to… possibly move on?
Simple it’s not, I’m afraid you will find, for a mind-maker upper to make up his mind.
Somehow or another, despite all the piles of dive gear and the mementos we had to pack up when we eventually left SE Asia, that crazy Dr. Seuss book managed to find its way into our bags.
The previous decade had proven to us that, given a chance, outside possibilities have a real chance to become inside realities… even potentially something as outside as buying a sailboat to live aboard full time, despite having absolutely zero sailing experience.
Yet, the previous decade had also proven to us that the only prerequisite for gaining experience is actually doing something. Trial and error; research and discussion; in some cases sheer repetition (i.e. visual navigation or anchoring) and in others strategic avoidance (say, hurricanes or collisions). And living aboard a boat 24/7, three hundred sixty five days a year undoubtedly allows substantial opportunity for all of those things.
With time, the sheer novelty of everything accompanied by a terror of the unknown began to slowly give way to a sense of confidence and occasional understanding accompanied by a healthy respect for the unknown (with the occasional small poo in the boardies).
Exit… Sovereign Nation… Off The Grid. Much more than simply names of sailboats. They reflect particular mindsets… unique ways of thinking… complete changes in thought processing.
With time, we began to sense that shift of perspective. With time, we began to realize that, once again, we were controlling the direction of our lives.
Except when you don’t. Because, sometimes, you won’t.
Somehow or another, that crazy book had once again made the cut of what was deemed precious enough to bring along when we moved aboard our floating home, S/V Exit.
And it echoed the reality that, even aboard our own floating empire, we were still subject to outside influences and the inevitable ups and downs of life.
Nearly three years and nine thousand nautical miles later, as we sailed Exit from Grand Cayman on Friday the 13th, March 2020, we had no concept of how the following six months would unfold.
Little did we know that we were headed for…
The Waiting Place…
Briefly, we were caught in the wake of the ripple effect involving the first Covid-19 lockdowns. Providencia and San Andreas, Colombia turned us away while we were twenty miles away. Bocas del Toro locked everything down the morning after our arrival. And, for a time, we were fearful we would once again be cast out as refugees.
But, eventually, we were granted visas and allowed to join the rest of Panama… and, for that matter, the rest of the globe, in the process of doing nothing…
Everyone is just waiting.
A perpetual planetary time out for almost our entire species. Pandemic.
A month… then a month becomes sixty days… then sixty days turns into three months… which quickly exceeds a hundred days… suddenly four months have passed… then five.
Then… finally… after six months, it seemed as though the global haze could actually be slowly lifting.
A hesitant easing of Covid lockdown restrictions in Bocas del Toro—- coinciding with what looked to be our final struggles to rectify a complicated windlass, chain, and anchor issue which had, in and of itself, brought us to a virtual standstill for months —- allowed us to start moving the mothership about more freely once again.
Somehow you’ll escape all that waiting and staying.
Which brings us full circle to October 2, 2020. Thirty eight years after that first date. Twelve years after our exodus from the United States.
Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting. So… get on your way!
Maybe not our mountain… but very possibly our ocean.
OH, THE PLACES WE’LL GO! It’s just what the Doctor ordered, ya know…
Now, to be fair, I have always been a Dr. Seuss fan. A fierce independence seems to course through the characters who pass on lessons and ideas from within unlimited and imaginative worlds via incredibly creative poetry, language, and storylines. Still, teaching children the confidence to resist being persuaded to eat questionable foods like green eggs rings a bit more common-sensible…
On the other hand, “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!” seems to resonate like the bizarre combined poetic interpretations of Mr. Rogers, Dr. Phil, and Rick Steves… all wrapped up with an even stranger personal resonance of some Nostradamus-type-deja-vu-familiarity. More like a mushroom induced overnight contemplation than a bedtime story… certainly far deeper shit than ever came out of the mouth of any purple dinosaur!
In the interest of full disclosure (just in case someone failed to realize), all above italicized, center spaced text stanzas are excerpts from “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!” written by Dr. Seuss. Without having gained the expressed permission to reproduce these excerpts, I am counting on the Doctor’s unmistakable sense of cool to look beyond any thought of legal action. Barney can fuck off.