Lost at Sea

Part One: Out of Sight

Goat was in the lead. More accurately he was far ahead of the pack, and completely unaware of the span of choppy sea separating him from me.

With my left foot I pushed in the rudder control foot peg as far as it would go and paddled till my front made the 180 degree change. The Kayak rotated with the grace of a battle ship, yet still responded better than the muscles in my back, which cramp and spasm every time I turn my head to face backwards. For some time I squint directly into the setting sun, searching for the two miniscule figures of Jacob and J.

Minutes later two paddling figures emerge, unfortunately from the opposite direction. Two young Kuna men in their Cayucos were returning it seemed from a deep sea fishing trip. Their Payloads however told a different story.

“Nuedie!� I greeted them with the word that encompasses all variations of salutation.

Neither of them responded so I shouted louder.

“Are those Rocks in your boat?� I asked. Curious about the huge mound of broken corral heaped within their boats.

“Yeah, rocks.� They replied, politely smiling.

My head buzzed with questions; how the hell did they dig up all that coral? What would they use it for? Does the entire Kuna Yala Comarca plunder their reefs like this?�

Usually fishermen in the Comarca are baffled by the sight of our small gringo boats weighed down by dismantled bicycles of all things. Nearly everyone we’d encountered had paused and made an effort to figure out where we came from, where we were going, and why we chose to travel unassisted by motor. These rock gathering boatmen, however, were in a major hurry. They bolted right past my idle vessel and continued on to the town of Ustupu leaving me to admire the fluid form of their oar strokes propelling them so swift and straight.

“Damn, where are they…?�

Though the sun was softened by low-lying clouds, still my search was directed into the center of its brilliance. I pulled off my sunglasses, rinsed the sweat streaked lenses in the ocean, looked again, but could not find the characteristic flash of paddles arcing through the air.

I twisted my head around to look for Goat. In the few minutes that I had stopped paddling, he had managed to double the distance between us. What was more, the man looked hopelessly far out to sea, at least an hour’s paddle from the nearest land. I assumed that Goat was heading to a point, probably three miles ahead, a finger of land that curved outward from the coast. It was almost as if Goat was trying to create in his wake an inverse parabolic shape mirroring the land’s curvature. I didn’t really want to follow his route but there was at most an hour and a half of light remaining till nightfall, and I could conceive of no better plan.

As I took up once again a Madman’s pace, I tried figuring out how we had managed to sprint so far ahead of our friends. The last time we had all been together was outside the town of Aligandi; in the process of escaping that town, I endured a somewhat traumatic experience that rendered me disgruntled, and impatient.

I had been packing my boat. A local doctor was relating to me horror stories of recent Amoeba outbreaks.

“Whatever you do, don’t ever drink untreated water� He warned. “You should probably carry some anti-amoeba medications with you just in case.�

It didn’t seem like he was about to offer us any, so I shrugged and Looked with foreboding at the murky waters gently lapping against the rocks of our launching point. This shore area was what we affectionately referred to as The Shit Shallows. Dotting the circumference of every island in the Comarca are tiny shacks on wooden stilts with rickety ramps leading to a semi-curtained platform. These serve as the outhouses, the ocean provides sewage treatment. The police of Aligandi had made us haul our boats over a rocky ledge into the yard of a Clinic; hence there was a short but steep drop into the Shallows bellow. Having just been informed about the realities of gastrointestinal disease, I felt rather uneasy about wading in the shallows and struggling to enter my kayak. J. was feeling the same and offered to help.

“Just slide the back end into the water and get in.� He said, “I’ll push you the rest of the way.�

I sat down in my Kayak, J. pushed from the front, the whole rig wobbled, turned sideways. In split second I was capsized, flailing wildly to upright my boat and trying hard to interpret the roar of laughter emanating from the amused Kuna welcoming party -about three quarters of the town- as some form of commiseration.

Silently I performed the tricky re-entry maneuver, while fighting through the tormenting laughter with a little sarcasm and self-rebuke; “better just bungle this balancing act as well and really get the kids riled up.

Once I was secure in my boat I acknowledged the one face that wasn’t writhing with laughter, that of my doctor friend.

“You didn’t open your mouth, did you?� He called out to me.

“No.� I shouted back. “No way.�

“You should take some anti-amoeba medicine just in case you did.� He ordered. His concern was greatly aggravating my mounting paranoia. This folly was becoming too much too bear.

“I am fine.� I said again. “…Really.�

And so with haste I withdrew from those rancid waters at Aligandi, consoled myself with the fact that I suffered no open wounds, and maintained throughout the day a vigorous pace, to aid in the clearing of a worried head. And though it was far from his fault, I dared not look back at J. for fear that I might crack a mean spirited joke at his expense and ruin another day.

I just wanted to be cleansed of that humiliation, and speed was the most convenient means. As for Goat, well, all of us have at some point contemplated what mysterious forces are responsible for his invigorated stamina, his solid bursts of speed. No compelling explanation has ever been proposed, and we just assume that he’ll be about half a mile ahead of the next in line.

When I had managed to cross that broad gap between us, I yelled and blew on a whistle -the whistle designated to alert your friends to your emergency situation, should they be within range to hear.

He stopped paddling. I saw his wide-brimmed sombrero turn languidly as his eyes make contact.

“Goat!� I tossed up my hands in exasperation. “Come over here.�

There was still some distance between us and it didn’t seem far-fetched to believe that, having snapped out of a three hour long mad-man-dash, he would become aware of the of his incredible deviation.

I waited. It was probably no longer than a minute, each of us bobbing about the choppy wake, waiting for the other to make a move. So when my impatience finally got the better of me I went over greeted the man with what was really on my mind.

“Why the hell are you paddling so far from the coast?� I yelled.

“Why are you paddling where you’re paddling? Do you really have to be following me?� he flashed me a haughty smile. It was a puzzling expression which had the slight effect of enraging me further, but more importantly of accentuating and heightening my sensitivity to the broad range of surrealist qualities to this absurd day.

“I mean I’m headed for that point.� Goat indicated with his paddle. “I’ve been on a direct course for that point since we left Aligandi.�

I concentrated hard on the point ahead and wondered which one of us had lost their minds. Did he mean “direct� as in the flight path of a rocket bomb?

“I really don’t understand how you find this to be a direct course.� I stated. “What’s more, I lost sight of Jacob and J.J. at least an hour ago.�

“You should have blown your whistle when you lost sight of them.� He replied. “…and you know you don’t have to follow me if you think I’m taking a bad line.�

“Yeah, well, we’re something of a team.� My cracked voice betraying slight uncertainty. “If I decide to go my own way and let you out of sight, there’s the possibility that I wouldn’t run into the others and then it becomes far more complicated in the end to reunite three separate factions rather than two.�

He seemed to ponder over this a moment before saying; “Well, should we just sit here bobbing around like this, or turn around and find them?�

The more appealing option was to remain marooned at that imbecilic distance from land and try out some dialogue, arguments, psycho-analysis, whatever helped to procure from Goat some answers to tough questions ‘like What is it exactly that distorts special perception, provokes such speed and quells all curiosity for the casual observation of comrades in tow.

“We should go back.� I said.

As we started our retreat, I noticed just how weak I’d become. We had been paddling for over three hours without consuming even a packet of cookies. About all I had going for me was a combination of angst and anger over the postponement of interrogations. This void of resolution offered a fine mental distraction from fatigue.

Up ahead, opposing currents were breaking over a shallow reef. One wave would come from the south, collide with another from the northeast, rebound, and then travel backwards. The turbulent water crashed over my deck and filtered down into my pilot hatch through the thin weathered fabric of my spray skirt.

Suddenly, Goat stopped paddling. As I approached he yelled; “You take the lead. It was my jackass rushing ahead that led to this mess. I’ll follow you.�

Another twenty minutes of furious paddling went by without any sign of our touring companions. We each devoured a few packets of strawberry flavored wafers and decided it best to find a camp spot before dark set in completely. Unfortunately, the nearest shore was a fortress of rocky reef.

We kept on paddling, regressing further and further towards the point of our origin from earlier that day. A lone night fisherman was visible, probably less than a half kilometer away.

“I’m going to go question this guy.� Goat said before racing off.� Keep looking for a beach.�

A beach was not to be found. I looked instead at Goat’s perilous attempt to extract information. The fisherman, perhaps puzzled by the emergence of one swiftly moving alien craft, was deftly evading Goat’s approach. A near full moon beamed through the thin clouds, the mellowing sea surface was awash in a silver glow, and it appeared as though Goat, intently stalking the fisherman, were locked into a predatory conflict. It wouldn’t have surprised me much if he had been prepared to continue the chase through the night and well on into the next day, awaiting that final physical and emotional collapse of his adversary. But eventually the man realized the futility of a quick and easy escape and made contact with Goat. The encounter lasted but seconds and I blasted over to hear the debriefing.

“Those Kuna really Haul ass in their Dugouts.� A slightly winded Goat Speaks. “That guy did not want me catching up to him.�

“I bet he was just as reluctant to answer any questions.�

“Nahh, he was nice enough. Just didn’t really speak much Spanish.�

“So nothing was clarified? He departed as equally alarmed as when the wild chase began?�

Goat shrugged his shoulders in the affirmative. We were about to continue when suddenly a flash of light caught my eyes.

“Stop a minute!� I yelled. “That’s an L.E.D light, yeah?�

After a moment of inspection “That certainly looks like one of our headlamps.�

At this point we could see the faint street light luminescence evaporating over the small town of Mamitupu to our left. About midway down the coast between Mamitupu and us danced two mysterious lights, their operators stumbling around as though unfamiliar of the terrain. As we pressed on the lights moved about erratically; close together one for a minute, switched off in a moment of darkness, then one light reappearing a few hundred feet down the coast.

“These lamps aren’t exactly revealing the motions of two bros putting up hammocks�

“It has to be them.� asserted Goat.

We landed on a beach a few hundred yards down from where we last spotted the head lamps. After four hours of being locked into my pilot hatch I could barely stand. My ankles had become mechanical parts capable only of repeating over and over the simple but awkward adjustments in rudder angle. When the numbness faded I followed Goat up the coast. Neither of us appeared conscious of it, but suddenly we were sprinting across the sand. In that moment running felt to be just as much a necessity as breathing. More than just the anticipation of reuniting the clan, or freeing up atrophied limbs, I felt infected by the exhalations of that dense and unyielding Darien Jungle that Loomed moonlit on the threshold of the beach. Oddly enough it was the first time I had ever seen Goat run.

We were closing in on the lights, another hundred yards or so and I would be within shouting distance. There was a mounting surge, a climatic point of euphoria erupting from the day’s accumulation of disasters and oddities. I nearly yelled out something crude, something the other hams would recognize and respond to instantly. Then I noticed that there were three lights in progress, not two as I had witnessed before.

“Goat stop, we’ve got to stop.� I stuttered. “Three lights man.�

We paused, looked ahead dumbfounded. “Let’s get the hell back to the boats.� I whispered. Without hesitation each of us turned around and sprinted all the way back.

My mind underwent an instantaneous sea change; “What could those people possibly be doing combing over the beach with L.E.D lights? What would they think of two gringos sneaking up on them ‘seemingly out of the middle of the jungle’ barefoot and without shirts?� People in these parts were a bit tense and I had no desire to trigger the kind of event that had ruined our morning.

Hard to believe at this late hour, but earlier that day our camp had been raided by a masked man carrying an automatic rifle, who came running out of the swampy thicket screaming for everyone to get down. He had been accompanied by two other men, each with a nervous hand on their holstered pistols. Not one of them was wearing a uniform or behaving in a manner that would help clarify their identity. Was the gunman with the half balaclava and combat vest, pockets bulging with ammo clips, a drug trafficker or part of a Vigilante group?

It was mildly relieving to hear the one man say; “We’re Police from Aligandi. Some fishermen saw you here earlier and told us. What are you doing here?�

Aligandi was the Kuna village across a narrow channel from our Island camp. We had camped on the side of the island facing out towards the ocean to avoid being spotted by Kuna boatman looking for a land use fee. Had we been ready to depart at the break of dawn, perhaps there would have been no repercussions, but we lazily prepared breakfast and stayed till nearly noon.

“We’re just American tourists heading to Colombia on Kayaks.� J. began to relate our story as one man patted down Goat and another perused the assortment of bizarre gringo gadgetry scattered about.

“I can see that.� Replied the man, -presumably the captain of the police unit. “But you’re on private property and we have the problem of so many drug traffickers coming through this area.�

He explained that we had made a mistake by not visiting Aligandi and talking with the elders and we replied that we had arrived late at night and were too exhausted to make the trek to town. J. presented him with our letter of permission that was signed by the Kuna Chiefs, but he didn’t seem at all impressed.

“Look, your going to have to be escorted back to town to sort this out with the council. Do you guys have money with you?� Inquired the police captain.

We Nodded.

“Good, cause they’re going to charge you a fee.�

We paddled slowly towards Aligandi as the police motor boat coasted beside us the whole twenty minute ride to town.

An entire village had gathered on the docks of Aligandi eagerly awaiting our arrival. The eyes of some three hundred plus people studied us intently, wondering just what these haggard bearded men were up to.

I said to J: “They must’ve let school out in honor of our visit.�

“The Teachers are just as curious as the kids; I bet every tienda in town’s been shut up too.�

Our armed escorts directed us toward the rocky embankment outside the medical clinic. Luckily someone was willing to help us haul our boats out of the shit shallows. While stepping up onto land, Goat managed to cut his foot. One of the police men freaked out and rushed him inside the clinic.

The rest of us were escorted to the Sila ‘the council of elders that govern the town. The villagers swarmed around us as we walked, and giggled as they analyzed our every movement.

The elders were more than reasonable to deal with. Many of them expressed interest about the prospects of generating revenue through tourism. For some time they lectured us on Kuna History, describing the civil war that resulted in the Comarca becoming a sovereign entity apart from Panama. There was of course the twelve dollar mandatory tribute as well as some words of warning.

“You realize that if you had come and talked to us before hand…�Remarked one of the Kuna Elders, “None of this would have happened. When news hits town that there are suspicious people around, rumors start to spread. Many people thought that you were the dreaded eye thieves. Here people are afraid of Colombians coming to steal children’s eyes.�

An idea that sounded absurd to us: There was no possible way an outsider to a Kuna town could go unnoticed for two seconds. How could an organ thief possibly operate unobserved?

But that night while running away from the mysterious beach combers, I reevaluated the villager’s Paranoia of outsiders. If those beach combers were just regular people, they would certainly believe that Goat and I were up to something shady. Their reaction would further complicate a fiasco of a day. Images of the people at Aligandi, riled up and seeking some explanation for the out of ordinary flooded my mind. By conducting this renegade nighttime search and scaring the hell out of the locals, Goat and I were setting the foundation for yet another scandal.

“Had they seen me?� Drifting into a paranoia spell of my own. “Surely there was enough moonlight to illuminate our suspicious approach and hasty flight.�

Having returned to my boat I pried open the front hatch, ignored the puddle of water that had been forced through the neoprene lining by the rough swell, and yanked out the bottle of Ron Abuelo buried inside. Observing that I was in the process of unpacking, Goat pressured me to move on.

“We should probably search for them on that Island before calling it a night.� He said, pointing to the uninhabited spot just off the coast of Mamitupu.

“Of course I’m game.� I muttered after taking a refreshing pull of Panamanian Rum.

I repacked my front hatch and set off toward the Island. Without the previous sense of urgency directing my movement, I fell into a relaxed paddling rhythm, and actually began to enjoy myself.

“Those two are definitely camped out on that Island.� I boasted to Goat, feeling unusually optimistic. “If it had been me who lost sight of the rest of you, and felt it unsafe to continue, that Island is where I’d go.�

We reached the shallow reef around the island shore, and quickly circled its perimeter. There were no Kayaks, no sign of J.J. or Jacob. We set up our hammocks on that island just a stones throw from a Kuna Village, on the side facing toward the open ocean –a setup reminiscent of our encampment before the big morning raid in Aligandi. Just before passing out in my hammock I realized what a beauty of an island we were on: ´No biting flies, no foul odors of mangrove swamp, and a refreshing breeze. “Somebody will definitely be by to collect the rent in the morning.�