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Live from Carenero, NW Panama

6.9.11 Thursday, J and I got up, made coffee. We’ve got a maker that doesn’t exactly function like the way it should, one of those dead-end appliances that would be, should be thrown away already if it wasn’t in a place where appliances are a rarity. You can’t just walk down to the store and get a new one. You can walk down and get a pound of fresh tuna for a dollar seventy-five; you can get a coconut oil rub to ward off the Chitres, the ravenous no-see-ems; you can get a case of Balboa for nine dollars plus a deposit on the glass. You can get unrefrigerated eggs, or crackers, bananas or plantains for frying into chips. Few mommas on the block will sell you frozen fruit juice in a plastic bag called Duro for fifteen cents. Pineapple. See the children in the street with them, dripping from their faces with sweetness while running the bases. Baseball, omnipresent. A Caribbean pastime.

Anyways, coffee. And the broken shambles of our maker. It’s the hose that’s cracked; wake up stumbling to pour water into the plastic belly, and twenty minutes later the counter is dripping with most of it, a half-cupfull of doublestrong joe all that’s actually made it into the pot. Now we just pour piping hot water from the tap into the filter itself, makes out just fine. Of course, we’re told we aren’t supposed to be able to drink the water from the tap. When I arrived here, two weeks ago, I was adhering to that recommendation. But with time, and wet washed vegetables, and cubes of ice late night, and open-mouthed showers, and brushed teeth not entirely spat, the fancy begins to blossom that maybe it isn’t so deadly to swallow. With the coffee maker, the premier daily morning ritual, we are drinking it from the tap, hot but not boiling, and strained through a microfilter. Doing alright, so far. Doin’ alright. Fancy a growing immunity.

Midday is too hot to be bareskinned, for me anyway. You gotta be nimble in the sun when you’re of Ginger descent. Threw on pants and a tee-shirt, grabbed a mask and we’re out the door, J and myself, jogging left along the beach-hugging path. We pass through out of the settlements in minutes, past the funny, cartoonish expat bars and bungalows, past the stilted tin-roof local homes, weathered to the color of driftwood and just as covered in crabs, past the raked sand and shady palm grove at BiBi’s where we go for lime drinks some afternoons, or rent longboards. Run right on past that till breath finds rhythm, and the act of locomotion becomes the whole world. Stride and breathe and swing of limbs all become synchronized and a singular complete motion. On and on till the path breaks up and becomes littered with the razor-edged lava that forms the island’s baserock. Till a hyperfocus on placing the next step trumps runningform as the most important game at hand, saving feet trump saving breath. Reach the briny forest where the deviltrees grow, tall black and white trunks that splash down into a spaghetti of tangled, writhing roots. Locals I’ve walked with speak dislike, distrust for these trees, claiming the folklore that demons live amongst those snakelike roots. Not a hard stretch of the imagination, and you can be sure that I’ll be a believer when a misplaced running step rolls an ankle or breaks it, worse. But we are good at our game and run on, untouched by demontwine, coming through and reaching the first high point. Run up the steep embankment to the small grassy crown before slowing to a stand, and there lookout over the morning’s calm Atlantic. We are in the middle of a ten-day stretch of glassy seas (a la chagrin of our surfers and csers) but it makes it damn fine to snorkel. Or look down into the sea and examine the layout of the under-surface. In this case, to spot a sandy landing point at which to aim the feet for launched aerial entry. Shed bandana, empty pockets, tiptoe to razor-rocks’s edge, and cast out the mask. The first game is retrieving it and clearing it underwater, like putting on eyeballs although the salt won’t burn them. So jump!

Five minutes in the turquoise waters with the masks on and we find an underwater cave into the bluff from which we plunged. Never’d be able to see it from the surface, but drop under the glasstop and the shadow of depth extends back and back under the rock’s lip, no end in sight. We get to the shadow’s edge, sit amongst a school of flashing baitfish and wait for the eyes to adjust, peering. A noise of deep distant sucking, the wave action pushing and pulling air through an invisible passage in the rock somewhere, gurgling like a sleeping monster. Creepy. We push each other to dare and start holding breath and swimming into the dark. Then spy the liquid metal bouncing on the cave ceiling: a trapped air pocket, an epic discovery. Swim into the dark tunnel and pull long, come twenty feet and look up, eyes and hands through the glassy bubble, and find room to press a kiss to the ceiling. Pull air. Breathe. Magic.

We find space to put our faces through the superficie and breathe normal. The air tastes right, but it doesn’t stop me from a split-second blackfantasy of the air being stale, and what it would be like or if I would even feel it when the suffocation took place.

We saw the Spanish mermaids come around the point frm through foggy breathy masks from back inside the cave. Topless and immaculate, they came oblivious, searching into our tiny cay. Aback, taken aback by our sudden emergence from the solid wall itself like Jonathan Livington Seagull.

Broke smiles and conversation while treading the eight feet. Story of hidden bubbles, they came, one friend too scared to go, both returning to beach where we met after scaling the razor wall once more. A last lunge from the top? Twenty five feet down into six by six by six, but also out ten or so, a ballsy one. Clean, nevertheless. Jrand says, “How is your confidence in landing on me here, from there?” “Perfect.” “So.” Done.

We met them smoking and topping, told them of the point and better snorkels. Went, all together and rushing through the dense-mosquitoed inner island part, necessary to reach the good reef. Preserved there around the bend of the island, guarded by it’s shallows and the spattering of tiny two-tree islands breaching the surface. Where I had come before with the longboard that one day, that second day, alone. Where I had come days later, days ago, and seen the Brown-footed Boobie watching me from that furthest island, settled there amongst the bones and paint of his fellows, the swallows wheeling forever in orbit.

Blue sponges. Toxic nematodes, sea slugs. J took a sting to the knee from a brush with the bottom. I’m there in three feet of water, thin white ribbons of green kelp tickle my stomach and test the attention as I look to place feet and toes on this rock or that, dodging between the black urchin spines and holes unknown. “Alright?” Blink:Think: what will I do with him when he starts seizing and convulsion on some super toxic tropical fishtoxin? Drag his ass back to the shore and jog home with friend slung across shoulders? Shrug it off. It’s nothing. Invincibility, or something like it. I like to name it Will. Like it was said, Everything by its right name.

Perhaps a brush of coral.  Heard talk of fire coral in the area, saw what I thought it must be in the shallows before. Now, watching the small spade-shaped fishes, the torpedo wrasses and sharp yellow and blue tangs, the frog-limbed guppy types, hidden rock bass, and those more familiar builds that I attribute to the edibles class, now the morning is realized. An occasional pink and chartreuse parrot fish, that sand-maker with the hard lips. Seafans retract their beige and cream plume of flower into stalk in a flash of a second. A fraction of one.

Jrand climbed the rocky tiny island with most delicacy, for the surface. The razors here even less dulled by passage, inhabitants only birds and the crabs feeding on their waste. Found out about the bones visible from the water. Pelican skull like that crown of Lord Dream, conjured of Neil Gaimen’s Sandman series. Long and alien, a sunbleached featherlight skullwand. Beak dewdropped from the fragile complexities of the skull and facial cavities, a full sixteen inches in length, maybe longer, and so graciously curved along the long axis. Throws it to float, I place it back on shore. Wedged for the bless of the next rising sun, Carenero’s proudest point’s guardian.

To shore. WE’ve spent the morning in waking coffee, sprinting and cave breathing, swimming, darish leaps and now mermaids at the point, and one takes a moment to note the ubiquitous diamondshaped seedpod resting in the sandy forest hubris. “Look, almonds,” she says in passing, strong Spanish accent lilting the words lovely, casually. “No.””Yes!” We take them apart and find the wild skinny nut inside, eat and become believers then and there. Almonds! Everywhere! On a tree with low winding branches, wide waxed circular leaves like the seagrape I knew before. Tested, tasted and then the slow aftertaste of almond sneaking up, and no sooner have I tied off the arms and neck of my wet shirt and filled the better part of the cavity with the woody flaking pods, our new bounty.

Hours and days later, we are in the sidewalk of our house stoop, foot of the steep stairs, and a swirling swarm of local kids feeding on the frenzy of wild almonds freshly pounded free. Trying to hide a minute pile from their small hands, watching the older ones following suit and picking rocks to pound with. Sun sets red on our party sipping Balboas, fishing with cane and pier’s-end-diving into the darkening waters.


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