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Isla Contadora Panama Pearl Islands

It’s all about timing. I was straddling the front edge of the boat that was bobbing up and down in the water as waves pushed ashore and then quickly receded. I had to stick my leg into the two feet of water onto the shore once the wave finished pulling back so I wouldn’t get dragged away from the boat, but not too late that another wave came crashing through and I ended up in chest-high water. “When I say ‘three’ you go,” barked the man in the boat. And before I could think about how I would go about doing this I heard, “One, two, THREE!” and a hand pulled up on my backpack of camera gear that was strapped over my shoulders, and like a crane I was lifted and dropped gently into the water.

I slogged unsteadily through the water toward the sandy beach and looked for Steve who was already ahead of me, dragging our bag of dive gear, leaving a trail of parallel tracks in the sand, tatooed by the bag’s wheels. Another man was behind me with one of our suitcases balanced on his right shoulder while carrying our other suitcase in his left hand. We looked terribly overpacked for this trip.

Most people who go to Isla Contadora are locals who visit the island for the day to lounge around the beach, drinking cervezas as they chill out to an endless library of Latin club music on their smart phones playing through little portable speakers. They don’t bring suitcases hurled over their shoulders. At most, they might have a beach bag or daypack. But we were here for four days, not just a day trip, and we were overpacked with our gear and khaki wardrobe from a week of birding around Panama’s mainland. We were ready to trade the treking through the humid jungle for four glorious days of relaxing beach time, whale watching, snorkeling and scuba diving. And of course, it looked like we were moving in.

The man with our bags dropped them on the ground at our feet and I put four dollars into his palm. “Gracias!” he said before he ran back toward the boat and hopped on it gazelle-like as the boat was chugging away with departing passengers for the ferry. I scanned the beach trying to figure out who was meeting us. This was Perla Galeon, the beach where all pick ups and drop offs for the ferry from Panama’s mainland happen. There were people queued up to leave for one of the transfer boats while others, like us, were being dropped off, except everyone else seemed to know where they were going as they made their way across the sand to the stairs leading up to the street.

“Where do we go?” asked Steve, who always looked to me for our next step on these trips since I always took care of the logistical planning.

“Um, I’m not sure. Someone is supposed to be here to meet us,” I answered as I scanned the beach for anyone who appeared as though they might be looking for us. Maria, the owner of our hotel, Perla Real, wrote in an email to me that someone would be there to meet us, but I didn’t know who. I didn’t even have a name.

Unfamiliarity is familiar to us. We crash into it every time we travel to a new place. It doesn’t matter how many times we’ve traveled or how many times we’ve been to Panama. Every place is different, but the one thing that remains the same is this: Take a deep breath and just try to figure it all out.

Before I could even finish my deep breath, a young woman in her twenties, wearing a polo shirt and shorts was walking toward me and as we made eye contact she asked “Perla Real?”

“Yes!” I said with relief. “Hola!” And then the skinny man and a boy no more than 14 years old who were with her grabbed our bags and we followed them as we made our way across the sand and up the stairs on to a golf cart that took us to our hotel.

She drove the golf cart, piled high with our bags and it plugged up the hill like The Little Engine that Could. Steve and I have been amused many times when we’ve seen small pick up trucks in Central and South America, packed high with towering crates or hay or other wares–as if carrying the Tower of Pisa in the back of a little pick up truck, with one arm hanging out the window, clinging on to a rope that that is haphazardly wrapped around the goods. “Ha! Look at that!” we would say. “Isn’t that nuts?” But our own tower of luggage weighing down our golf cart here in Isla Contadora seemed more ridiculous as was apparent by the puzzled faces and raised eybrows we passed on the way to our hotel. Yes, we were the ones who were nuts.

Perla Real Hotel Isla Contadora

Lost in translation

The woman at the hotel front desk asked if we spoke Spanish. “Un poquito,” I replied and she rolled her eyes at me and gave me a heavy sigh. Not only did we over pack but we also didn’t speak Spanish. We were her least desirable guests and I quickly learned that I should have been a little more diligent with my Duolingo and Rosetta Stone apps before coming to Isla Contadora. This was our third trip to Panama, but our first to the Pearl Islands and I was accustomed to the many English-speaking Panamanians on the mainland, so I’d become lazy and had unrealistic expectations when venturing away from the main cities.

I signed all the necessary forms and then she handed us our key with it’s carved wooden fob. She gave us directions in Spanish, pointing to the courtyard, then to an open galley next to the office, overflowing with stacked beach chairs and umbrellas and a row of small coolers. I didn’t understand a single word and there might have been instructions about not doing something, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. I just nodded and kept repeating, “gracias.”

Golf cart Isla Contadora

The only way to get around on Isla Contadora is by golf cart. For about $80 a day you can rent one, whether it’s from the Visitor’s Center near Playa Galeon or in our case, it was through our hotel. Our rookie mistake the first day was thinking we could get around on foot, but after going up and down the hills and turning the wrong direction—not once, but twice—Steve and I huddled and decided that we were going to suck it up and shell out the $80 each day for transportation. Getting the key to that golf cart was like opening the door to freedom. Once we had the golf cart at our disposal we were able to roam around the island, stop by the mercado to get snacks and drinks, sample the various restaurants and get lost as often as we liked.

Counting pearls

After our breakfast at the hotel our first morning, we packed our golf cart with two beach chairs, an umbrella, a cooler with ice and a bag of granola bars, some fruit and drinks for our lazy beach day.

snorkeling Isla Contadora

Sitting on the sugary sand with legs stretched out at the edge of the ocean was like sitting in the tub at home as water washed up, licking just the top of my legs. I admired my coral-painted toenails in the water before the waves retreated into a foamy whisper. We were in a small cove, which was protected and the water gently rocked in and away from shore as though inhaling and exhaling. As I stared at my pedicure, my mind wandered and I wondered where exactly on this island that the natives counted pearls. In the 16th century around the time the Spanish were conquering Central America they enslaved the islands’ natives to harvest the pearls in this area now called the Pearl Islands and I imagined buckets piled high with pearls. Counting reminded me of spreadsheets, which reminded me of work. I don’t deal with spreadsheets much in my job—my career is in communications and I deal with words, not numbers. But it seems like everyone around me is a master at Excel and I couldn’t imagine anything as dull and boring as numbers. I imagined the native people of Isla Contadora probably hated the monotony of counting tiny pearls. We do a lot of monotonous things for money, I decided.

The blue snorkel sticking out of the water in the distance was Steve’s. I pushed out to float, turned, pulled my mask over my eyes and put my face in the water, blowing air in and out of my snorkel and I had forgotten how my breath seemed strangely amplified when snorkeling. The tiny fish the size of my fingers didn’t seem at all bothered by my presence. The water was kind—It didn’t toss and throw me against the volcanic edges of the shore. If I floated close to the edge I could put out my hand and gently push away from the rock. I located Steve’s fins ahead of me and I followed him as we swam near the rocky perimeter, pointing at orange and black fish that shimmied in the water, darting left then right and then disappearing behind me.

Pearl counting isn’t how I originally learned about the Pearl Islands. I learned about this archipelago from watching the reality television show, Survivor, which had filmed three of its seasons in the Pearl Islands. The clear azure water and brightly colored fish were the same as what producers and cinematographers depicted on TV and the waves crashed against the rocks with the same dramatic effect. I floated around with the realization that I could swim around without thinking that someone was trying to vote me off this island or stab me in the back. I knew that if I was ever on Survivor, I would be one of the first people voted off because I would suck at the challenges and spend too much of my time bird watching instead of building alliances.

After a morning of snorkeling we dried off in our beach chairs and ate our granola bars and pears. Steve fell into a nap, his snores muffled by the sound of the water rhythmically lapping onto the shore. Another umbrella popped up on the beach and a mom and dad set up their picnic while the boy and girl ran into the water squealing. I closed my eyes too, and dreamt that Survivor castaways and I were counting pearls together on this beach.

Looking for whales in silence

Don’t completely discredit our lack of Spanish language skills. There’s something to be said about the element of surprise when you are not exactly sure what you agreed to when you were only using hand gestures and drawing pictures. Apparently one morning we had agreed over breakfast to hire a private boat to go whale watching during a bit of charades with the cook at the hotel.

Humpback whale and calf Panama Pearl Islands

The young Panamanian man didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak Spanish, which was beginning to be a theme on this trip. I wished I had paid more attention to Mrs Potts’ Spanish lessons in high school instead of doodling pictures in class. I should have focused more and learned to conjugate verbs. I regretted not knowing the words I needed and felt the lost opportunity to communicate and learn more about the area. I’m a chatty traveler and want to know about an area, but I couldn’t ask any questions and I fault myself. However, the young man did understand when I simply asked, “Survivor?” He nodded and then steered the boat to the different islands and pointed to each island that was used for the different seasons of the show.

The other word we shared was “whale!” The young man would shout this word and point to the water where a mother and its calf would expose their backs out of the water before they submerged again into the ocean. Our boat chugged through the water with its load motor as we approached a safe distance when the man stopped the boat. The lapping of the water against the boat was the only sound that interrupted the silence.

The humpback whale and it’s young calf were closer and they would swell out of the water and then slip back into the ocean. Up and down maybe twice and then they’d disappear. It would be another five mintues and the pair had moved to another location where they’d lift their backs out the water and then submerge again. We looked to see if they would rise again. If nothing, then our man in the boat would take us to show us more islands. He pointed and we would nod yes and I was sad because I couldn’t learn any more than what pointing told me. Our language differences were a silent wall that I had not yet climbed.

Herding cats

At every restaurant on Isla Contadora there is a cat or two that will rub against your legs and beg for food. I would scratch the top of its head and it would lean in its head to rub my leg and then I would look around to see if anyone was looking and drop a little bit of chicken from my fajita and the kitty would gobble it up.

Isla Contadora cats

“Look, Steve. The ear is clipped,” I pointed out with the first cat that befriended us. It was an interesting feature, but then we noticed it on the yellow tiger-striped cat at the restaurant where we had lunch and then at another restaurant where a gray striped cat begged for food as we slurped mango smoothies.

Cats had been a big problem on Isla Contadora, with new litters of kittens every six week from the feral cats, a local who spoke English told me. With all the new litters of kittens popping up, the feral population’s threat to song birds grew exponentially.  It was the businesses on the island that decided to pitch in money to bring over a vet from the mainland of Panama to get the cats spayed and neutered to help control the population.

The locals on the island rounded up over 400 cats their first attempt and now when the vet comes over they only need to spay or neuter three or so, which means they’re catching up. Part of the process of managing the cat population is clipping the left ear so they know which cats not to catch when they’re rounding them up.

“Good kitty,” I cooed as I scratched behind it’s clipped ear. “Now just stay away from the birds.” If I could toss a few scrambled eggs his way maybe I could keep him from killing a bird for a meal.

Finding Guillermo

“He’s never there,” a woman complained to us when she saw Steve and I standing outside Coral Dreams’ locked door with a “Closed” sign displayed. “Try to come back at 4:00. Sometimes he comes back then.” Finding Guillermo was getting to be impossible. He’s the Argentinian owner of Coral Dreams, the only dive shop on Isla Contadora and this was our third time finding his shop closed.

Diving Isla Contadora

We went back at 4:00 and the door was open. “You are lucky,” he said when we asked if he could take us diving the next day. “A man from Germany wanted to go, but I said, ‘I don’t take out just one person,’ so he will be happy.” The German would be happy and so were we.

All night the thunder shook our hotel room and the rain poured out of the sky. At 6 a.m. I turned over in bed and asked Steve if he thought our dive trip would be cancelled. “Just wait,” he assured me. “Rain doesn’t last very long here.”

Steve was right. When we boarded the dive boat the water was calm, the sky blue and only a few puffy white clouds dotted the sky. Brown Pelicans and Magnificent Frigatebirds soared in the sky, playing in the gentle breeze. The man from Germany spoke excellent English and kept thanking us for booking the dive trip so he could dive too. We all spoke English on this boat and I wanted to ask questions, but the roar of the motor was too load and I didn’t want to scream my words into the beautiful scene of this string of islands.

After a 15 minute ride in the boat Guillermo turned off the boat motor and gave us a thorough review of what we might see. With gear and a tank strapped on, I sat on the edge of the boat and let the weight of the tank pull me down into a backward roll into the water. The sea was warm and gentle. Once we all were in the water we let the air out of our BCDs and followed Guillermo down into the ocean.

It was silent except for my breathing in and out of my regulator. The world of water and the language of diving is simple: Just a few hand gestures and follow Guillermo and look. I didn’t need to know Spanish—or even English—as I glided slowly through the muted blue, watching needle fish, schools of yellow and black fish and bright blue fish skim around us.

Guillermo turned and faced us and floated, as if sitting in a chair and just as he motioned us to stop hundreds of sliver fish surrounded us and I felt as though I was floating in the middle of a mixer. The fish swam in counterclockwise circle, looking  at us with their big eyes with curiosity. I was floating inside nature’s spinning heart.

The silver fish eventually tired of us and moved on their way like a crowd in a train station moving to catch their next train. I didn’t want it all to end, but eventually Guillermo motioned us with his thumb up that we were going to surface. We waited out our safety stop at 15 feet and I hummed the alphabet song six times, which is how I time 3 minutes. This is not in the dive training, but it works for me.

On the boat ride back to the island Guillermo sees the ferry come in with more visitors for the day. “I hate them. They come and leave their garbage. The residents on the island don’t like them,” he complained.

“Do you think Survivor will come back?” I ask him.

“No,” he tells me. “There are not enough hotel rooms on the island to house them. They have a huge production staff—over 300 people.”

The island once thrived with several resort properties, but now Isla Contadora only has a couple hundred residents—a mix of local business owners of restaurants and services and those who are wealthy with big estates. The services could use the business of overnight visitors as opposeed to the day visitors. And the residents with the grand estates would prefer to have the island to themselves. For whatever reason, many of the hotel properties that were once were filled are now boarded up. Ask three different people why this is the case and you’ll get three different answers. Any story is an interesting footnote, but I wasn’t sure which one was the closest to the truth.

But for now, no more reality TV in the Pearl Islands.

Being stuck on an island is not a bad thing

We departed from Isla Contadora much the same way that we arrived on Perla Galeon, except this time there was confusion with our round-trip ferry ticket. We had our tickets in advance, but it wasn’t recorded on their list and we were told there were no more seats. There were frantic phone calls made by a man who stood behind a wooden desk set up on a concrete slab that looked like at one time it might have been part of an open-air cafe. We were scolded for coming late, even though we were 20 minutes early, as if that was the problem. This was the last ferry going back to the mainland and we had a flight early the next morning. I started imagining how I would have to send texts to my boss at work to explain that I was stranded on a tropical island and I’ll be a day late coming back to work and how suspicious that looked.

One more day and night on this island was not a bad idea, I thought. I was just beginning to feel like I got the hang of charades instead of speaking, and it was freeing to be on an island that is not commercial like the islands I’ve visited in Hawaii. It’s not a “canned” travel experience with perfectly beautiful buildings with elegant landscapes. Four days earlier everything was massively unfamiliar and I was just beginning to feel at home with the unpredictability of everything. Figuring everything out was less of a frustration and more like detective work, or trying to make out a word with Scrabble tiles of all vowels. It’s difficult, but rewarding when you find a solution.

The man behind the table, hung up the phone, called us over and said we were fine and told us to stand in the line with the other people waiting for a boat to take them to the ferry. It was their mistake, I was told, and we have seats.

When it was our turn to get on one of the boats that takes us to the ferry I slogged through two feet of water, threw my leg over the side of the boat and a brown-skinned man held my hand as I pivoted into the boat. Steve followed and sat next to me on a bench and the embarassment of all our luggage being loaded on the front of boat returned.

As the boat made its way to the ferry I looked back to the shore of white sand, leaning palm trees and mangroves and the reality of pearl counters, kitty wranglers, diving with a school of fish enveloping me and Survivor memories was already shrinking away in the distance.

My Spanish lessons, I thought, begin as soon as I get home.