I sat in a crowded mini bus. People pressed past me to stand in the aisle, barely large enough for a child to squeeze by. With each person, I tried to fold my shoulders inward and change the shape of the bag in my lap, trying to make more room. The bag objected – it meowed.
I was on my way to Changuinola on public transportation from Almirante, a trash-filled coastal village that is the gateway to the Bocas del Toro archipelago of islands of Panama, on the Caribbean Sea. Changuinola is inland about an hour, the closest large town, with air-conditioned grocery stores, strip malls, and, most importantly to the cat in my lap, a vet.
The cat wasn’t mine. I was holding it for the person sitting next to me, also crowding those around him with his own crated cat; his name was Tim.
Tim and his brother-in-law Evan – who turned 22 that day, Valentine’s Day – were from Texas. I had met them scarcely an hour before, and yet I already knew much of their lives, and much more I could ascertain simply because I was living a somewhat similar lifestyle to theirs at the moment.
I came to Panama to write a book. On Valentine’s Day, I had been in the country about a week. I arrived in Panama City, celebrated the weekend before Mardi Gras there, and had finally made it to my destination three days before: Isla Pastor, a small completely private island, made up of old cocoa farms and jungle. I arrived in Almirante via an overnight bus at 6:30 a.m. I ignored the taxis and walked to a boat launch to meet Omar, the man who cared for the property. I bought enough supplies to last me a couple days, and headed out to the island with him in a small boat.
After leaving behind the garbage-strewn passages of Almirante, I watched the island draw closer under sunny skies and clear blue water. Everything on the land around me was green: lush, verdant, tropical green. It was probably 75 degrees at 10 a.m.
I am a subscriber to The Caretaker Gazette, an online caretaking newsletter where people can advertise their properties that need caretakers all over the world, whether they need someone indefinitely or for just a few weeks. Some positions are paid; some are for a free place to stay. Some take more skills and knowledge than others. The advertisement for the property I was headed to suggested that a knowledge of Spanish would be helpful. It said the 13-acre property was planted in cocoa about 40 years ago; that Omar cared for it, and that the owner, who was sailing the world on his sailboat, was hoping to find someone to become a long-term collaborator. Perhaps, he suggested, it would be a good spot for a retreat center, or that at the very least someone could harvest and sell the cocoa.
Although the advertisement was more than 4 months old when I found it in the folder where I kept the Caretaker Gazette’s emails, I filled out the online application anyway. In less than 12 hours, the property owner, Ed, called me from his sailboat in Tonga, an island near Fiji. He later told me that I seemed like a good candidate for several reasons: 1) I was already heading to Panama, 2) I spoke Spanish and 3) I had grown up on an apple orchard. Although I wasn’t aware of this then, cocoa grows on a tree, much like an apple.
Ed also told me that it would be fine with him if all I wanted to do was stay the six months I planned to be gone and write my book, but that there were plenty of other opportunities available, including the retreat center idea – for which more lodging would need to be built– or taking over cocoa production.
In the weeks between speaking to Ed and actually arriving at his property, I had done my best to keep my head on straight. It was true that my main goal was to find a cheap place to live that was inspirational, where I could work on the book I had wanted to write for years. More than that, though, I was looking for a change of pace; a fresh start. Without having even seen the property up close, I wanted desperately to make it into the answer to my prayers.
In many ways, it was. Omar was a trustworthy, knowledgeable man who lived on the same island and around the corner. The house was beautiful: all local hardwoods, solar powered, with a rainwater water system. Aside from the gigantic spiders with their long spindly legs and fishing-line-net webs, the grounds themselves were beautiful: cocoa, interspersed with banana, mango, coconut, star fruit, limes, and something they called an apple, which it definitely was not, despite its red skin and white flesh.
Then there were the inevitable down sides that could only be apparent through repeated walks of the property: the cocoa was under cared for – due to Omar’s part-time status – and riddled with insects and fungus. No one had picked the last harvest, so it rotted on the trees. The last occupant had left a waist-high plastic-covered wood skeleton box full of about 30 seedlings to grow; the termites had eaten through the wood bottom, and the plants laid in piles around the thriving termite mound, covered in cobwebs, half alive and thirsty. The tiny biting no-see-ums emerged at dawn and dusk, hanging out for a few hours each time and covering my skin in tiny red welts.
All this, and yet the view from the deck was almost 180 degrees of sea from where I could sit at the table, writing. I looked down from this house on the top of a ridge – all the better to catch the breeze – straight at a coral reef that became my afternoon break spot once I donned my snorkel and launched off the ladder at the end of the dock.
I had yet to meet any of my neighbors, so when Omar told me he was going to take some Americans from the next island over to Almirante for some shopping, I asked if I could tag along to do the same.
He arrived in a large hand-made canoe with a slight leak and his 8 horse power motor attached to the back with two people: a man with a red beard who looked to be in his mid-thirties, and a younger, brown-haired guy who barely looked 18. Tim and Evan. We hadn’t gone very far before I thought I heard a meow. The cats sat in their crates, seasick.
On the boat ride, I asked Tim for his story, and he told it to me. He and his wife had moved to Panama after coming down for a cousin’s wedding. They were from Texas; they bought 30 acres on a nearby island and began to build a house. His wife liked animals, so they’d brought all of theirs with them: 3 dogs and 3 cats. Although it was never quite clear if these cats were originals or offspring, Tim was hauling them to Changuinola that day to be spayed. Apparently, their island now had a surplus of felines.
After two years of struggling to build a house on a remote island in a tropical location, Tim and his wife were six months from being finished. His wife had left six months before, fed up with the tropical lifestyle, the lack of like-minded individuals, and unable to find enough clients to run her massage practice. Tim’s plan was to finish the house then sell the property. After, of course, he spayed the cats.
We walked around Almirante, first heading to an internet café and then to the grocery store, gathering supplies for Evan, who was heading to Costa Rica for a couple weeks. He needed to leave the country in order to come back and have his tourist visa renewed.
Although I had only had plans to go to Almirante, I decided to go with them to Changuinola. I offered to carry one of the cats to its final destination.
We loaded into the bus with the cats on our laps and Evan’s suitcases – one filled with clothes, the other with cheap food for him to subsist on, including lentils, rice and popcorn – went into the trunk of the bus. After the bus was packed full, Tim asked me if I would be willing to talk to the vet over the phone to make sure they could spay the cats that day. I was happy to comply, although a little surprised that he hadn’t made this call already, before loading the cats into the crates and hauling them miles over water and land to get to this point. Before I could make the call, however, I had to ask the woman sitting in front of us how to say “spay” in Spanish. I tried to be quiet and discreet, but it didn’t matter; moments later, I was struggling to hear the vet over a cheap cell phone, most likely yelling my responses because I couldn’t hear myself.
We exited the bus in Changuinola. Tim had problems getting the money he needed to send Evan on his way; apparently the local bank he used was out of funds. We left the cats in a bag check at a grocery store, and went in to check out their wares. Eventually, I went with Tim to drop off the cats about 15 minutes out of town. The cab ride for the cats and us was $1.65.
On the way back, we stopped at an American-style super market, meaning that it was air-conditioned, the floors were tile and the goods were all stacked perfectly on shelves. There were even gluten-free options, large bottles of olive oil, and barbecue sauce. Tim hung around while I bought what I needed and stuffed it into my backpack. Since he had to stay overnight to wait for the bank to refill its stock of cash, he dropped me off at the bus stop.
I met Omar at the same wharf in Almirante, and regaled him with the entire tale on our way back out to my island oasis, which seemed much more appealing than when I had left it nearly 8 hours before. We laughed together at the idea of hauling cats that far to get them fixed; at my role as cat carrier; at the strange things that foreigners did. I wanted to consider myself different from them, and yet I wasn’t. I, too, was a stranger in a foreign land, trying to carve out a piece to call home.