The look of fear transcends language. I know this because the two Spanish speaking guides who sat perched at the back of our small single engine boat looked at each other the way anyone does when they realise things have gone from bad to worse. Or in this case, worst. There were 13 of us in the boat, an ominous number in hindsight, and a hush had fallen over the group as we floated off the coast of Panama, attempting to move from one of the San Blas Islands to the next.
With 378 of these isolated and beautiful islands spread out and occupied by the indigenous Kuna people, who have largely kept their traditions for centuries, it wasn’t just that there was no way to call anyone for help, but no one to provide it. With our engine incapacitated, swamped by growing swells, and the shoreline untouchable in the distance, we began to drift aimlessly. Lost at sea. What had started as a chance to truly experience a local culture was now feeling like a nightmare and as panic started to set in I couldn’t help but wonder if civilisation wasn’t as overrated as I had originally thought.
It’s a common goal of travel. To ‘get off the beaten track’. It’s often implied that this type of travel will open doors, not just leading to more enriching experiences on the road, but also of the mind. To be honest I’m not particularly enthused on this debate. I’ve found myself staying in 5-star hotels at times and then literally sleeping on the street at others and both were amazing in their own way. But the San Blas Islands are a different proposition. Anyone who’s been will know exactly where their irresistible appeal lies and for anyone giving it a thought I can only say do it and never regret it. So, what exactly are the San Blas Islands?
The San Blas Islands are a group of islands in the archipelago de San Blas, Northwest of Panama in the Caribbean Sea. Swaying palm trees dot the landscape of 378 islands, most of which are uninhabited. Yet despite their isolation life does find a way. The indigenous society, the Kuna people, have lived on these islands since before Columbus set foot in the New World.
The Kuna are fiercely proud of their heritage and culture and exist as an autonomous territory under Panama’s jurisdiction. At the same time, they understand the importance of staying relevant to avoid being swept away in the passing current of time. To this end, they have factored a form of small scale eco-tourism into their existence. They receive vital income through this micro tourism and, for people like myself, the phrase ‘off the beaten track’ becomes a reality in every way as you live with them and live like them.
No electricity, no Wi-Fi, no running water. They catch their food and eat it fresh. They leave no carbon footprint behind. In fact, if a tragedy were to strike Earth, no one would know they even existed. And that’s exactly why the San Blas Islands remain one of Panama’s most alluring and exotic locations. A chance to leave life behind, or maybe to find it? In any case, it was here that I found myself with four days and four nights ahead.
To add some personal context, I have a deep fear of deep water. I can’t really recall why as I was a voracious beach goer as a child. I used to go to the beach all the time. Right up until I watched my uncle drown in deep water when I was little. That’s a joke of course. He used to take us to the pub for a sausage sizzle rather than the beach so the only thing he was at risk of drowning in was Tooheys New. The truth is though that deep water remained a frightening prospect to me so I was nervous about so much time at sea. However I’d been assured that the ocean faring voyages were limited and the real experience was enjoying a slice of modern day Eden on Earth, so I threw on my prison orange life jacket and committed to the experience.
As if to prove the assurances of a relaxing experience the trip from the coast of Panama to our first San Blas Island was smooth sailing. The Kuna people were welcoming and greeted us with smiles and freshly caught crayfish in equal measure. The scent of simmering rice and beans, plantain and fish drifted over an island so small you could throw an iPad mini from one side to the other. And you might as well because with no electricity the collection of electronics we brought with us quickly became bricks.
Relaxation was top of the agenda. Hammocks hung in ample supply. There was no shortage of sand and sun. But, if you felt overwhelmed with unwinding, there was a 100-year-old ship wreck metres from the shore teeming with marine life just waiting to be snorkelled. The San Blas Islands felt like paradise. So as the sun set over a turquoise Caribbean Sea so vivid you would think it had already been subject to the Instagram filter’s we’d all inevitably later use, it really seemed like the San Blas Islands were immune to the worries of the world.
The following day we set out on the open sea again in search of our next island home, an expected hour and a half boat ride before us. Our captain was a Kuna local who spoke very little English but used a cheeky smile to bridge the language gap where possible. While our young first mate was also a Kuna native, no more than 20 years old. Joining them, and our leader in the San Blas, was our tour operator and boat owner, Manuel.
A jovial character, Manuel told me all about his life up until that point. With Kuna heritage he’d been adopted by a French Canadian in Quebec City and now spoke fluent English, French and Spanish. He’d held a successful job as an electrical engineer but just didn’t feel happy. So, he threw it all in and moved to the coast of Panama to run tours, an act of happiness seeking I could certainly understand and respect.
His boat itself was small. Christened the ‘Nina Christi’, she held the 10 of us on the tour, plus the captain, the first mate and Manuel, and with an outboard motor at the back she was the little single engine that could. The sun burnt through the clouds above on our second morning, the day growing hotter and hotter, with spirits high. A bottle of Panama rum was even passed around, Ron Abeulo, with swigs for everyone and our collective voices belted out songs as waves crashed into the side of our boat, sending a fine mist over a joyous motley crew.
After an hour or so of travel, with the previous island invisible behind us, the expected island not yet appearing before us and the shore rapidly disappearing on the horizon, I truly felt like I’d conquered my fear of the seas. There was a sense of calm and serenity with no tightness in my chest and no worries on my mind. I was facing my fears and coming out on top, a mental boxer at the height of my powers. The exposure therapy heavyweight champion of the world.
In every memory though there is a moment that stands out the most. And on this day, in this remote part of the world, at this exact point in my life, that moment was a single sentence.
Delivered twice. With vastly different meanings.
“Too much water”
It was innocuous enough. In fact, none of our collective ten heads turned to follow up its meaning. I assumed a wave must have crashed over the side of the Nina Christi. That there was probably water pooling up the back in the seat occupied by Manuel and the Captain. They’d scoop it out and we’d be back underway, no worries.
Then the line was delivered again. This time with a caveat of terrifying proportions.
“Too much water…in engine”
Slowly we began to turn around. Lemmings, ants, whatever huddled characterisation you prefer. Because, like frightened children, we turned to see the two men we had trusted with our sea faring safety looking at one another in complete ashen silence. The smiles were gone. The laughter was gone. And so was our movement and momentum.
In the moments before there were so many competing sounds. The conversations and laughter of ten excited travellers. The sound of the boat cutting through choppy waves. The roar of our engine. But just like that, the soundtrack to this moment was turned off. The engine roared no more and what was once an ocean of noise was now just a silent ocean.
It seems one of the increasingly choppy waves had breached the Nina Christi and spilled over the three fuel tanks at the back of the boat. Not only that but the wave had damaged the Nina Christi’s engine. The fuel, previously the most important commodity on board, was now useless as it flowed through an engine that stuttered into silence. We were brought to a standstill. The captain tore at the rip cord, everyone on the boat willing life back into the engine. But it did nothing. And just like that, we sat 13 strong, in a tiny boat far out at sea, rocking from side to side, in total silence.
“We will fix this. Choose another song”
Manuel directed us. And we did as we were told, belting out Smashmouth’s ‘All Star’ like it was the Karaoke World Cup, which someone really should make a reality. But it didn’t help. The damage it seems was beyond their capabilities. Not one to take defeat lightly Manuel wasn’t done just yet and as the leader of the tour he offered up a final solution.
“Pass me the rum”.
Innovator. Visionary. Genius. He was going to use the strength of the rum to dilute the salt water in the fuel tanks and get us going again. A real MacGyver of the Central Americas. It was only when he put the bottle to his lips and took an almighty gulp that we realised he was throwing in the towel. The rum wasn’t the last way to address the problem, it was the first way to deal with the failure.
“The engine is broken” he uttered, his voice low and measured. “Nothing we can do”
No one had a working phone at this point. And even if they did the majority of the San Blas Islands have no electricity so there was no one to call. All we had was a single oar, which could do nothing against the weight of the boat and her occupants. So we had no way to move. All we could do was float as the growing swell kept hitting us. The force felt so much more powerful with our speed removed. As every wave approached from the left we all leant to the right. Trying to outrun the inevitable impact.
Each wave would lift the Nina Christi high on one side, letting you look right down at the canyon of water you’d soon find yourself in, before you slid down into the abyss, now staring up at a wall of water once more. This pattern was sickeningly rhythmic. Each wave raced towards us from afar. Building size and speed as 13 bodies huddled together getting ready for the next dip of the rollercoaster. And with that amount of people in the boat we sat low on the water. Seemingly little in between us and the rolling, crushing, deep blue.
As each wave hit the boat spun until we faced the shore like an arrow, and then we started to move again. We started to move backwards. Drifting away from land, away from help, away from anything. Manuel grabbed the oar and raised it high above his head, hoping someone might see us but there was no point and as he lay the oar back down we just kept drifting. Drifting out to sea.
“What do we do?” came an anonymous voice that really could have been any of us.
“Nothing. There is nothing we can do” Manuel replied. “The engines are broken, we can’t move”
Lost at Sea
In situations like this a worry can turn into an anxiety in a moment. A moment later it becomes fear. Fear begets panic. This vicious cycle was one I knew all too well from my days in hospital. Each round of chemo a fresh physical and mental war to wage. And floating off the coast of Panama this cycle was well underway for us all. The rocking of the boat had become sickening without forward direction to smooth it out. People started to lean towards the sides, throwing up. The others having to shuffle around, maintaining the overall balance in a macabre game of twister. The bottle of rum was passed around until it was gone and then, it was just us.
Alone, out at sea, and hundreds of miles from civilisation, it seemed my darkest fear had become reality.
To drift away from the narrative for a moment, fear is a funny thing. When I was younger it came to me in disguise. A fear of deep water. Of the darkness. Of moths, weirdly enough. It was only when I was 20 that I learned what true fear genuinely feels like. It discarded its childish disguise and presented itself as reality. The day I was told I had an aggressive form of Leukaemia that had been left undiagnosed. Fear came to me like a tidal wave, a tsunami that swept away the insignificant and the irrelevant from my life. It threw everything into the sharpest clarity. Seeing what I was truly afraid of made me realise that my pre-conceived notions of fear were unfounded, and were actually holding me back. I realised fear makes us run from shadows, when really, we should run towards them.
Letting fear control you closes doors. It stops you from doing the things that would make you a more accomplished person. It seals off opportunities for growth and happiness. The simplest response is to ignore fear and find another path to your goals. Too often though, the detour takes you further away. Fear does have a place in our lives. There is no light without darkness just as there is no courage without fear. And it’s learning to harness that courage that lets you kick goals, drives you up the ladder in life. You won’t ever eliminate fear from your life entirely. But by acknowledging it and accepting it as a valid emotion you’ll build character that will prove invaluable in making the most of your life. You’ll find the shortest path to your goal, is straight through what you fear most.
And as for being lost and drifting out to sea. We were eventually rescued of course. A passing boat came close enough to spot us and they helped us out. An hour later we had reached our destination and the adventures in paradise continued. The way out of the rabbit hole is never as interesting as the way in though. So the details of our salvation will never be as vivid as those of our downfall.
In the end, it’s often the tough times that we recall best. Not because they remind us of when we struggled, but because they defined us so we could go on and achieve.