A Garbage Bag in Paradise
On the true cost of travel in the Tuscany of the Tropics
An ominous clunking had been coming from the undercarriage as our driver coaxed the Land Cruiser up and down the ribbon of asphalt that wound through the jungle from the riverbank in Cartí. Mike and I were crammed in the way-back, the provisional row of seats in the trunk, and the rhythmic, metallic clang was striking directly below our feet. We looked at each other, concluding the dismal inevitable. Travel in Panama was fraught with little misadventures; we weren’t getting back to the capital that easily.
Midway up a tortuous hill, the jeep gave a terrible, final clank and stopped, and our driver shook his head sadly. “Transmisión,” he said. We already knew him, the corpulent, toadish Pinzón. He worked for the tour company, and had driven us to Cartí from Panama City several days ago. He made at least two of the lengthy round trips per day, trucking tourists to and from the point of departure for the San Blás islands. He let the jeep roll to the bottom of the hill and we all got out, a blessed release from the claustrophobic crush of the backseat: Mike and I, a young French couple, an elderly European pair, and a Polish gentleman who’d been with us on Chichime, the small island where we’d stayed.
We stood on the roadside in the jungle. All around us loomed the rampant wildlife reserve of the Área Silvestre de Narganá: liana-draped trees, giant fronds, a crazed orchestra of birdcalls, huge predators swooping through the upper branches. Soon the boorish hooting of howler monkeys began nearby, an intimidating sound, which is its purpose, since howlers defend their turf with jeering boos. Pinzón urinated in the weeds onto some discarded plastic, as if to mark our spot in response. He seemed confident the situation would be speedily resolved, for every few minutes a car or jeep would hurtle around the visible bends of the solitary road. For tourists, a hired jeep was the only way to access Cartí and the San Blás islands beyond, so there were many tour companies, Land Cruisers and drivers like ours, running two trips a day. Pinzón knew all the drivers who, seeing our predicament, stopped to try to make room for us. The young French couple with a plane to catch were awarded the first two open seats.
Of all things, I found myself thinking about the trash bag I had stashed in the jeep. Garbage collection was a desperate problem on the San Blás, and we had decided to export our trash from the island—some crushed beer cans, banana peels, plastic wrappers. I’d tried to make the garbage look like our other bags of unconsumed groceries, but when I’d nonchalantly placed it in the jeep back at the riverbank, Pinzón had asked, “Basura?” If I’d said yes he’d have told me to leave it, so I said no, the bag was needed. Now I was wondering—should I transfer the trash bag into the next jeep, or leave it in our busted ride? I’d taken it because if left on the island, it would have been burned or tossed into the dazzling Caribbean. But what was I going to do with it back in Panama City? On the other hand, if I left it in the abandoned jeep, the noble gesture became pointless, even more futile than it already was.
When the next Land Cruiser pulled to the roadside, and a local handler with a gold tooth asked for our ticket stubs and beckoned us aboard, we grabbed our backpacks and groceries, and, since Pinzón was watching, the trash bag too. A token act of environmentalism, but I would see it though.
This was at the end of our two-week trip through Panama. We had come because Mike’s mother had recently moved there from Ohio to bask in her retirement and join the community of middle and upper class expats setting up shop in select desirable regions. Back in Boulder we were roommates, renting a rustic ranch house on a horse farm a few miles from town. Ours is an intimate, old-fashioned friendship. We cook, ski, practice Aikido together, trade books and occasionally clothes, and have a married-couple shtick we fall into for our amusement, letting people wonder if we’re gay. I’m four years older, and also play the big brother at times, shaking my head at his oafish blunders and late-night escapades, while he mocks my refined, hermetic reclusion. When we travel together, we try to follow our instinct, seeking a kind of pure experience, the reality of a place, rather than any proscribed route.
Panama is an isthmus—a wave-shaped strip of land between the Pacific to the south and the Carribean to the north—connecting Costa Rica to Colombia like the root of an umbilical cord. Our on-the-fly route had shown us a good deal of the country’s motley topography in only a fortnight: city, mountains, jungle, both coasts. After two intense, taxing days in the capital, we’d begun our proper meandering on the Pacific side, the Península de Azuero, where Mike’s mother Karen lived. Five hours by suffocating bus landed us in Chitré, hot and charmless, where Karen picked us up in her tiny Hyundai. She was tanned and straw-haired with an appealing Joni Mitchell thing going and a Midwestern rambling manner. She drawled aloud as she drove us into the rolling countryside which has been called the “Tuscany of the Tropics,” lushly verdant and hilly with mist clinging to the upper slopes. Karen told us about the town’s characters and minor dramas—a dark story about a young Israeli man who’d moved to Pedasí and fallen in hard with drugs. Recently he’d been arrested for not wearing a shirt on the street and carrying cocaine. He had to bribe the police to avoid jail and now he was under their thumb, on precarious parole.
It’s easy to imagine how this happens in Panama. In the city, we had stayed in Casco Viejo, the historical hub of the expanding capital; within a minute of our first steps onto the street, the night of our arrival, we’d been offered cocaine twice by boys no older than fifteen. They stood on corners and nodded at us and strolled a few paces alongside: “Coca? Coca? Muy pura…” I didn’t ask but I’m sure the coca was cheap. You’d have to be crazy or desperate or foolish to buy cocaine from a kid in a neighborhood thick with military police wearing machine guns and slouched berets, patrolling the Palacio de las Garzas where the President works and lives. But many travelers are foolish or desperate or crazy, and given Panama’s immediate proximity to Colombia, cocaine is notoriously abundant.
Mike and I were fine with cheap local beer and a bit of the grungy pot Karen liked to smoke from a perforated apple. That evening, sitting on the veranda of her apartment which hung on a cliff above a secluded crescent of rugged Pacific coastline, I could feel euphoria sifting into my system. We had escaped the hectic capital; it felt like we had finally arrived in Panama, the place I had imagined, laidback and idyllic. The sky flushed soft apricot and the craggy rocks in the bay turned black as we ate octopus and shrimp ceviche purchased from Karen’s “fish guy” who came around every week. Motionless geckos on the ceiling chirped to each other, surprisingly loud tongue-clucking sounds from such tiny conversationalists. The waves below crumpled and hissed in retreat.
In the morning we watched pelicans dive-bomb for fish in the bay. The giant birds hovered in the humid sky, cruising the updrafts, scanning the surface, then gave into gravity and plunged like a squadron of kamikaze into the waves, bobbing upright, swallowing their catch. Mike and I swam out to see them up close, their long sword-like bills and yellow-feathered heads. The water had a delicious chill and reeked of chum.
A good life, it seemed, retirement in this sleepy pacific paradise. Cheap rent, fresh fish and produce, and if you apply for and acquire a visa, heavy discounts on accommodation and transport around the country. A growing number of gringos appear to agree. We met a few of Karen’s friends during our stay, friendly older couples with large houses and local maids and egregious Spanish pronunciations of place-names (Boketty for Boquete, Colón like the intestinal tract). They all wore the contentment of being in on a luxurious secret.
The secret, however, won’t last long. Private gated communities with names like Bella Mar and half-constructed mansions had already sprung up along the pitted coastal road. In Venao, a surfing beach just down the road from Karen’s place, we found a hostel of brightly painted triangular dorm-huts surrounding a central pool and bar, and a string of hacienda-style hotels further down the sand. Next to the surfing hostel, a broad field had been bulldozed and flattened to make room for what an enormous billboard advertised as “Blue Venao—porque la mar es parte de ti” (because the sea is part of you). The massive photo displayed a slender beauty from the bikinied buttocks down, a surfboard leash around her ankle, strolling toward the limitless blue shimmer. The rumor was that Blue Venao was the work of Israeli investors who’d bought the property to build a swank resort or gated cluster of costly residences. If things go smoothly, it could go from dirt lot to booming tourist community in a few years—though smooth, the rumor held, wasn’t the way it was going. Regardless, the way was irrefutable, and depressingly familiar.
A similar transformation was occurring in Casco Viejo, the up-and-coming neighborhood in the capital. The venerable Casco was the old soul of Panama City; the Spaniards had built up the elegant district in the 1670s after fleeing their former Panamanian capital, which had been rubbled by no less a pirate than Captain Henry Morgan—the spiced rum’s namesake. Spanish colonial flair still lingered on the narrow streets in the rippled red rooftiles and wrought-iron verandas, but half the housefronts were crumbled into decrepitude. Heavy renovation was happening, scaffolds climbing dilapidated lanes, rows of architectural ruins converting into sleek avenues of gelato shops and boutique hotels and tapas restaurants, drawn in creamy pastels like parts of Havana. At night dolled-up partygoers trawled the main square in their cars while outdoor cafes blasted reggaeton; from the veranda of our hostel we could see a rooftop hotel bar encased in glass a la Miami. Casco Viejo was becoming uber-hip, perhaps too quickly for its own good. The district was situated on a small fortified peninsula, and the prow-like harbor wall looked over the hazy bay to the astonishing skyline of downtown Panama City, bristling with spires, company monoliths, residential towers, skeletal works-in-progress, a high-concept skyscraper of spiraling green glass that belongs in Dubai—a vision of the future from the ramparts of the old world.
To lament modernization seems naïve and pointless by now, but the romantic in me quails at the sight of such ruthless progress. Deforestation, I read in my Lonely Planet, is continually eating into Panama’s wilderness—logging, mining, hydroelectric dam building, road expanding, ranching. Along the Pan-American highway we rode through clouds of red construction dust, past caterpillars and backhoe loaders chewing red earth from a cross-section of hillside, small armies of workers and traffic coordinators wearing bandanas over their mouths.
Panama is taking command of its destiny, after a bloody history of bombardment, oppression, and interference by Spain, France, and the United States, not to mention their own malignant rulers, like Noriega. Control of the lucrative Canal was finally ceded to Panama in 1977 and fully assumed by the government in 1999, and plans are underway for its expansion. More traffic, more infrastructure, more money, more tourists, more displacement of locals, more upward mobility for the few. Who am I to judge this inevitable trend, to find it discomforting—me, the privileged, visiting American?
In Venao after dark, Mike and I stumbled upon a wedding party on the beach. The celebrants were dressed in white and setting Chinese sky lanterns adrift into the night: oil-paper orbs with fires lit inside which carried them upward like hot-air balloons, up and up until they were luminous blobs against the blackness. It was beautiful to watch, the white-garbed clique holding the lanterns aloft like worshippers, the levitating balls of orange flame lifting from their fingers. But what happens when they come down, I wondered. This morning I’d seen a group of birds pecking at something washed ashore which looked like a giant flattened jellyfish. It could’ve been one of these lanterns. Afloat in the ocean it becomes a perfect net to entangle a tortoise or dolphin. Or a perfect firestarter, if the wind hooks it inland. A perfect metaphor, too, for the unintended consequences of it all: releasing fireballs into the dark for the oohs and ahs, the picturesque ephemerality, the unseen descent.
I wasn’t this cynical when I traveled in my twenties. I’d been to Panama, in fact, ten years ago, crossed the border from Costa Rica and spent three blissful days on the virginal isle of Bastimentos, in the now-hopping Bocas del Toro region. Something had changed in me when I’d turned 30, and moved to Boulder from New Jersey. My good-humored misanthropy became more focused, more aware of human impact on the planet, the rise in population and spread of homogenized culture. Mike and I discussed it often back home: the blind denial of climate change, damaging power of greed, presumption of ownership over the earth. We would sigh, wearily resigned to the doom of our species, and then toast to being alive as the end of the party draws nigh.
But I see how deliberate obliviousness happens, abroad and at home. Forty percent of Panama’s land is draped in forest, but 50 years ago it was 70 percent—30 percent in half a century is a frightening loss. Yet what still exists holds more species biodiversity than any other New World country north of Colombia, and from lookout points in the highlands, the jungle seems boundless. Boquete, snuggled into the Parque Nacional Volcán Barú, is another refuge for wealthy expats who jet around the suburban town in golf carts, dressed for the links, and backpackers keen on coffee farm and canopy tours, white water rafting, volcano hikes, waterfall climbs. Curtains of deliquescent mist down from the mossy mountains where icebergs of cloud pile and drift in their valleys. We didn’t hike the Volcán Barú, feeling a characteristic aversion for the thing everyone else was doing. But we did track down the empyrean Lost and Found Jungle Lodge nestled in the higher country: an ecohostel meant to be the antidote to Boquete’s tour-oriented scene, providing do-it-yourself access to steep muddy trails, monkey sightings, monstrous gnarled old trees like Tolkien’s Ents, and views of breathtaking distance. Falling walls of rainforest, tumble of pthalo-green lowlands, blazing skein of rivers snaking toward the Pacific, and the purple pyramid of Volcán Barú. How could anyone worry about forest devastation in the midst of such splendor?
Why worry at all when you’re on holiday? Industrialization, deforestation, trash accumulation—there was nothing I could do about these things. Except pack out my pathetic little garbage bag from the San Blás islands.
The San Blás Archipelago, along with the coastline and wildlife reserve, are collectively called the Comarca de Guna Yala—the district of the Guna people. The Guna are the first Latin American indigenous people to gain autonomy of their comarca, after a violent revolt in 1925. Crossing into their territory was like permeating a lax international boundary. Pinzón was at the wheel; he had picked Mike and me up at the Albrook bus station in Panama City at 5:30 in the morning, after we’d taken an overnight, refrigerated bus from the highlands. With a half dozen other travellers crammed in the Land Cruiser Pinzón drove us into the jungle, up to the backlogged line of jeeps waiting to cross the well-manned Guna checkpoint. Pinzón knew the border guards, and haggled through the paperwork and passport proceedings, which had a subtly shady feel. A Spaniard in the jeep next to me murmured about the booming cocaine trade that runs through the region from Colombia, just down the coast, a popular route for sailing tours and drug-runners. He was taking such a tour with his wife, who was starting to argue with Pinzón over air conditioning versus open windows. When we finally reached the riverbank of Cartí—just a grassy parking lot and unloading area—scores of passengers were being divvied up into motorboats which chugged through mangrove swamps to the open sea.
Three hundred and sixty-five San Blás islands compose the archipelago, though less than 40 are inhabited. The isles closer to shore were more populated and packed with ramshackle bamboo huts and corrugated metal structures leaning crookedly over the lapping waterline. They looked like an overburdened flotilla slowly sinking. The islands further out, however, become sparser, more halcyon, ovals of sugar sand sprouting with handfuls of palms, hemmed by the pellucid turquoise, like a child’s drawing of an island. We had arranged to stay on Chichime, one of the larger outlying isles, covered in coconut groves with a few thatch-roofed huts. Mike and I were given a hut all to ourselves: two beds, a table, a sand floor, slats of light piercing the wicker-lashed walls, the patchwork sapphire-and-emerald water twenty feet away. We’d been traveling for twenty hours. We plopped in the sand on our private “patio,” a bamboo enclosure, drinking the warm Balboa beers we’d brought and smoking a little nugget of pot Karen had given us. We’d put the stuff away by the time a small, dark, sun-wizened man approached us.
He was Guna, an elder of the tiny group that ran the island. Like the other Guna men he seemed barely above five feet tall, leathered and sinewy. He spoke to us in Spanish from the railing of our patio, glancing occasionally into our open doorway, inquiring how long we’d be staying, his manner indifferent and yet artful, calculated. At last he said, with a studied offhandedness, like an afterthought, that if we were going to smoke marijuana, we should go off in the trees. I live just over there, he told us, pointing vaguely; he must have caught the smoke on the breeze. We nodded, vaguely chastened—absolutely, we agreed. He looked at us with his canny, aged face. “Coca?” he asked. After a surprised pause, we shook our heads. No, not us, no thank you. “No? Coca?” he asked again. We demurred, and he shrugged and nodded, and wandered away.
Half a dozen other travelers were staying on the island. The Guna attitude toward us all was curious. The women cooked and served meals; they wore bright woven molas, patterned fabrics, and deadpan expressions. The food was plonked down on the table with little love or fanfare: simple dishes of rice, salad, and fish. The fish was fresh but often cold, as if left sitting out, and unseasoned, and the women did not respond to our hearty gracias. Their stone-faced manner was perhaps a defensive response to the picture-snapping hordes off yachts and cruise ships that regularly stopped here. I watched a group of Guna perform a traditional dance for a collection of yachters who’d come ashore, men and women colorfully attired, blowing wood flutes and shaking maracas, but grimly, almost joylessly, the tune an eerily monotonous melody. Yet when the women were alone, I noticed, clearing plates after we’d left the dining hut, they often burst into gigglish laughter at private jokes, the children joining in.
All these visitors, daytrippers and overnighters, generate garbage, of course. And the shoreline of the island all the way around was ringed with washed-up detritus: plastic bottles, beer cans, styrofoam containers, discarded flipflops, shredded clothing, fronds of dead coral. Bags of trash left behind by daytrippers sat in the palm grove for days, blown about by the wind. Near the Guna dwellings on the island’s far side, piles of burning trash smoldered. We heard rumors of the other way the Guna disposed of trash. One of the yachters who’d come ashore told us that the Guna offer to unload garbage from docking sailboats for a few dollars. The sailor had been warned to refuse, since the Guna supposedly ferry the trash out to sea and dump it. The tide pulls away and redeposits the flotsam on neighboring islands until all are equally adorned. Mike and I picked our way around the littered shore, looking at crabs, starfish, Fresca bottles, Soberana beercans, something that resembled a diaper, while a fleet of sailboats cluttered the view of the neighboring island and a cruise liner hulked like an office building farther asea. In my imagination I erased it all, and tried to envision this place a hundred years ago. A timeless scene, the Guna paddling dugout canoes, the shallow harbor bristling with healthy coral, the shoreline strewn only with coconuts and palm fronds.
It’s easy to ask why the Guna don’t implement a better trash-collection and recycling system; after all, it’s good business to have clean beaches. But aesthetics aside, I have to wonder if their system is environmentally worse than ours in the United States, where we leave our trash on the curb to be carted away to mountainous heaps we don’t have to look at—in some cases because they’re adrift on the ocean? In Boulder, Colorado, we separate our recycling as well as our compost, and trashcans around town are smugly marked “Landfill,” which is either amusing or annoyingly holier-than-thou. After all, we did not make the nonrecyclable, noncompostable material destined for landfills—it’s everywhere, it’s unavoidable. And the Guna certainly didn’t make it, either. From their perspective, they must have other, more important fish to fry, like organizing and hosting the legions of backpackers who show up every day, more and more every year, armed with their cosmopolitan expectations of paradise. The Guna probably can’t afford a complex waste removal system, and previously never found it necessary, since, as my Lonely Planet nicely put it, “all refuse was relatively innocuous until outside influence prevailed.”
I couldn’t look at those heartbreaking trash-lined beaches and leave my non-innocuous refuse behind. So there I was, transferring the plastic bag into the jeep which had rescued us from the side of the road in the jungle. Again Mike and I were crushed into the way-back, this time beside the sizable Pinzón, who lounged with an arm slung over the seat bench as we veered along the hairpin turns the driver managed with ease. Relieved of responsibility, Pinzón happily bonded with the driver as they shouted tales of obnoxious passengers complaining or puking. I was starting to feel carsick, myself. There was no armrest, nothing to hold onto as the Land Cruiser careened around the steep bends. And a warm, sordid odor was beginning to waft from behind me: a saturnalian frathouse stink of beer dregs and rotting banana peels and chorizo wrappers. Our trash bag, undeniable, inescapable, was riding atop the luggage directly behind my head.
If Pinzón smelt it, he gave no indication, but Mike and I looked at each other, dog-eyed, green at the gills. The irony didn’t escape us. This was perfect justice, a well-deserved reminder of the futility of our petty gesture. For what were we going to do with the garbage back in Panama City? Leave it on the curb, alongside the bins of our hotel, to be taken god-knows-where? In the end that’s exactly what we did—and what good did that do? Trash is trash, in a proper receptacle or in the sea, it’s not going anywhere and it all ends up in the same place in the long run. I smiled at the bleak hilarity, and the gratifying completion of the metaphor I’d glimpsed in Venao, in those levitating sky lanterns. Human beings love beauty, above almost all else. But our love is death to natural beauty, for where we go, pollution follows. The act of traveling itself, hopping on an airplane, is an insidious contributor to climate change; a seven-hour flight dumps two to three tons of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere per passenger. Human arrival signals any paradise’s downfall—one of our earliest myths fortells this conclusion. And as Panama expands its canal, pretties up its cities, lures expats into ritzy beachfront developments, more tourists will arrive every year, a simple mathematical formula.
Does that mean we shouldn’t go, shouldn’t marvel at Panama’s glory and evolution? On the one hand, of course we should go, for travel is also what defines our species, and we must live our lives. On the other hand, living our lives is what’s brought us to a planetary tipping point. Perhaps it’s time for something different, responsible self-denial, for a change. Why walk when we can fly, has been our credo. Yet we face forward when we fly, never truly looking ahead, and the wake of our descent is always unseen.