New World, part 3 of 3
From:  fieldnotes, "Isla Escudo," January, 25 – February 14, 2005

El cayo

One day I stand alone in camp and just take in the strangeness of it all.  A raucous call from above draws my attention to a gap in the canopy where a pair of Red-lored Amazon parrots fly by – green with a flash of red.  At my feet swim schools of multicolored tropical fish as sunlight penetrates the glass-blue water to the bottom.  Next to me a green iguana, the color of light penetrating a leaf, twists down a coconut tree, and Jesus lizards dart about its base.  If I stand long enough, the shells at my feet begin to move as the hermit crabs scuttle about.  When I move, they stop in unison pretending to be shells again. 

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The mainland receives four meters of rain a year; the island gets five.  We arrived with nearly everything wet from salt spray during the crossing, and then it began to rain.  At times it opens up with the force of a breaking dam.  I attempt to dry clothes by draping them on tree branches when it isn’t raining and scramble to pull them inside the cabana when it starts again.  On the best days, I see some progress as things go from wet to damp and on rare occasions to clammy.  But never dry.  The Panamanians don’t bother.  They hang out their wet clothes and put them on when they need them – wet or merely damp.  In a few days I’m doing the same.  One day rain falls incessantly, making us less inclined to head into the mangroves.  “Thank God,” Jaque says, “it’s the dry season.”

Most nights we eat fresh fish, caught by our guides or bought from the Indians.  The day before, Arcadio spotted a lobster next to camp when he tied up the boat, and in a few minutes brought up enough for dinner.  Before leaving Panama, I will have eaten red and yellowtail snapper, grouper, octopus and squid, conch, king crab and shrimp, and an assortment of unidentified fish.  And one night in Bocas I ate rat for dinner.  The locals called it conejo, which is rabbit, but it was paca, a rodent resembling a large guinea pig.  Served with oxtail gravy it tasted like, well, oxtail.

            When George returns from a collecting trip it’s show-and-tell time.  He uncovers an eyelash viper, the bright yellow of polished gold, found lying in the trail.  He later plays for us the first recording of the Escudo hummingbird’s song.  It’s not the metallic trill of the wings but the song itself, something I’ve never heard.
Elaborating on the sloth theme, Jeri tells us about the Slow Food movement centered in Italy.  Restaurants make a point of pacing the meal to last an evening and they are often located in slow, pedestrian-oriented towns.  More than sixty towns worldwide have earned Slow City status, and there’s even slow music.  One of these musicians shows up each year to play a single note of his composition and leaves.  It’s shaping up to be a slow-food night on Cayo Erik as Jaque struggles to slice an octopus brought in by the fishermen.  “It’s like trying to cut up a three-foot long piece of snot,” she says.  Javier laughs at her frustration.  “No!” he tells her.  “You cook it first.  You can’t cut it up before you cook it!” 

Javier tells us we have stayed on the island longer than any outsiders, then begins to wonder about the Carnaval festivities going on back in Bocas.  “Everyone dancing and jumping and singing,” he says.  “Local people sing, ‘Everybody Like Bananas’ and ‘I Don’t Know What the Hell the Monkey Want to Do.’”  He says men will drink until reaching a state of goma – blackout.  “They drink so much they start singing ranchero songs!”

The islanders

The fishermen and their families live in two palm-thatched cabanas built on stilts.  Officially they are Ngöbe Indians, a branch of the Guaymí.  But they prefer to be known simply as Guaymí and are probably related to the Indians Columbus met along the coast on his last voyage.  Finding just eight inhabitants on the island came as a surprise to us.  In Bocas the population was said to be ten times that, but the locals don’t use numbers with any exactness.  At different times, the same person will give you wildly different figures, depending on the setting, mood, and emotional intensity of the conversation.

 During the fall fishing season the population booms to several hundred, so I’ve heard.  “Local people from different communities,” says Javier, “come to Escudo for hustle, to make some money.  Some is commercial diver for lobster; some is fisherman.  Other one come to catch octopus, conch, crab.”

It’s a dangerous way to make a living.  Lobster fisherman sail their cayucos out from the mainland, hoping they’ve read the weather right.  A sail made from plastic rice sacks carries the dugout miles beyond land.  One man stays with the boat while the other free dives as deep as 100 feet, staying below for up to two minutes.
As we get to know them, the fishermen tell us tales of Escudo, an island where each animal is protected by a spirit, and each year the spirits take the life of a fisherman in compensation for the fish they catch.  Javier, whose mother was Guaymí, knows some of these traditions but insists he doesn’t believe them.  “They say, if you do something wrong, the Boss of the Sea come and take you to his home.  Before they go fishing, they light the termite nest on fire, walk along the beach waving the smoke to keep the bad spirits away.  If you kill a perezoso, the spirit is angry.  When you go back to the mainland, the swell come up and the current get bad.  You die.”

The idea of killing a sloth revolts the locals.  “Why would anyone kill them?” Paulino asks.  “They are poor.  Not good food.”

“Indians is this area don’t eat the sloth,” Javier adds.  “No molestan.  They have the lobster, the fish, the conch.  Much better food.  The Indians in the mountains, when they are hungry and see a sloth climbing in front of them, they say, ‘You’re going to be my lunch’ – bam!”            

            When we arrived the islanders were hungry.  The head of their fishing crew, Rogelio Smith, had been overdue for two weeks, and the islanders had gone without their staples of rice and cooking oil for even longer.  We feed them whenever they stop by our camp, and on the fourth day, Rogelio arrives.  In addition to food, he has brought 1000 pounds of ice to keep their catch fresh before taking it back to the mainland.  His old boat, powered by twin 15 hp motors, is a Caribbean version of the African Queen.  Macario and Paulino each use one of his outboard motors to fish farther offshore.  Within a couple of days they have landed several sharks, including a hammerhead.  They slice them into filets and dry the valuable fins for the Asian market.
One day I go fishing beyond the reef with Javier and Arcadio.  The sea is their life, and I want to see them in their natural element.  I take a water bottle with me, but Arcadio tosses in a coconut and leaves it at that.  We motor through a break in the coral with the boat slamming each wave and turn west to parallel the reef.  A squall line looms in front of us, a dark wall of rain.  No turning back.  We collide with it and are instantly soaked.  Javier sets out a line and hands me the rod to troll; he readies his own line as Arcadio steers.  Waves crash against the sea stacks between us and land, churning the surf white.  If we lose the motor, we’re in trouble.  Finally we turn back without having caught a single fish, the first time they’ve been unsuccessful. 
“Chili con carne tonight!” Arcadio laughs, recalling our meal from last night.  It was a novelty for these Panamanians, one that Arcadio blamed for his nightmares.  The next day we do better, having first netted sardines for bait.

By the ninth day our gas has run low, so Javier and Arcadio decide to cross over to the Valiente Peninsula and resupply.  “Big waves,” Javier says on his return.  “In canoe there is no problem.  It’s heavy and the wave don’t lift him up so much.  I get a little rough time to make it to the mainland, but it’s okay.”

            Javier grew up on the peninsula and made his first crossing to Isla Escudo when he was nine-years old.  Before the trip, the old people tried to scare him with tales of spirits.  “Each animal has its god,” he says.  “The sloth has its god, and if you kill one you will die.”  He pauses, thinking about that first crossing.  “It’s a long, long trip,” he continues, “but it’s not so hard, the waves not beat on you.  A lot of people go in canoe.  People who don’t have motor do it in sail.  Macario live in the Red Beach on the mainland.  He take a chance when it not blowing like yesterday.  He uses sail.  In water like yesterday he can sink and lose everything.  He do it in the good weather.”
Jaque opens a can of stuffed grape leaves, and Paulino stares at the food offered him.  I know how he feels, having been stumped by the hors d’oeuvre tray at parties more than once.  He takes a bite to be polite.  Arcadio then shows him how to eat smoked oysters on a cracker. 

Paulino tells us long ago no outsiders were able to stay overnight on the island.  “Only pure Indians in unpainted boats and using vines to tie up with could leave their boats overnight.”  He speaks in Spanish with Javier interpreting.  “A painted boat would not be there in the morning.”  But in 1917 things changed.  “Lots of people came here then.  The bad spirit was not on the beach; it was back inland.”  He goes on to talk about Lewis Smith, one of three brothers who deserted from the American army in the First World War.  He lived on the island for many years, planting coconut trees, breadfruit, and other useful plants. 

“Long ago,” Paulino says, “a bad king lived on the island and a good king on the mainland.  They agreed to meet half way between the two and fight.  They fought until both sides were destroyed.  Good spirit now on the mainland; bad one on the island.  When the sea is strong, it’s the spirits warring. ”

Javier remembers the stories told to him when he was young.  “The Indian of old,” he tells me, “say Escudo de Veraguas is like the devil island, Isla Demonio.  They have many different histories.  The perezoso don’t live here just because they want to live here.  They have a spirit what take care of them.  Some day you see eleven, twelve of them, and the next day you come and don’t see them again.  It’s a spirit what take them around.  I think it not the spirit.  I think they walk and go to the tall tree.  Them say Escudo is the devil island – each thing have the spirit – the perezoso have the spirit, the hummingbird have the spirit, the wild pig have the spirit.  But I think it no, because Rogelio’s grandfather have the pig and when he was put in hospital the pig go to the jungle and survive.  That’s the way it is at Escudo de Veraguas.  The local people don’t feed them, and they go to the jungle.  There not no spirit.

“The commercial diver say every year one have to die in the ocean.  That’s the way Escudo is.  The bad spirit have to take one of them.  I think Escudo is a nice island.  The kids believe what the old people tell them, but I think it a beautiful island.  I never see bad spirits here.  No, no bad spirits.  I like this place for fishing, for swim, for everything.  I think the government should try to protect the Escudo de Veraguas.  If they don’t do that, the richest people will buy the best spots, and in a couple of years I can’t come to Escudo – I have to pay big money to come back to Escudo.”

On the last night the chitras are out in full force.  These sand flies go for exposed ankles and arms.  Arcadio takes a coconut husk, shreds some of the fiber, places a few sticks on top with a splash of gasoline, and finally cuts off a piece of termite nest and sets it on top.  The pile sits on wooden floorboards next to a wood post treated with diesel oil.  As he searches for a match I tell him, “Hold on!  You’re going to burn the whole place down.”  But he knows what he’s doing.  After a brief flare-up, the smudge settles down to putting out a column of aromatic smoke.  The chitras disappear, and when morning comes the cabana still stands.
We break camp the next morning.  Packing up the kitchen, Jaque sets aside the unused food to give to the islanders.  Macario and his sons arrive to load it into their dugout, but he looks puzzled, never having eaten canned food before.  Jaque tosses in a rotary can opener, a tool Macario has never used.  Arcadio picks it up, showing the fisherman how to open a can of tuna fish.

The Panamanian expedition was backed by an exploration grant from the National Geographic Expeditions Council with logistical aid and encouragement from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.   

See Bill Hatcher's photograph of a swimming pygmy sloth in National Geographic, March, 2006.  For information on Jeri Ledbetter's film and clips go to:


Click for past explorations

New World part 1 of 3

New World part 2 of 3