We spent six months living in Panama on a tiny island off the Caribbean coast where only a footpath leads from one side to the other, and everyone knows each other by first name. Then we went back to the United States.
Before we left Panama, though, we spent a week in the San Blas islands. Wichaub Huala, one of the bigger of those islands, had even even fewer amenities than Bocas. One lightbulb lit the path in front of the guest house, and the few toilets were meant for visitors. Those living there simply didn’t seem to need them. We felt oddly at home there in spite of the difference.
Yes, Lenox Mall, like Disneyland, only everything sells for cheap.
We went to the mall in search of clothing. Most of ours had been destroyed in Bocas. That’s sort of the nature of living on the water. Sand, salt and rain can do that to your stuff. And while a salt bitten sundress with thinning patches wears perfectly well there, here, in
shiny clean Atlanta, it seems hobo-ish.
We parked in the side of the mall near Macy’s, wended our way through the men’s section to the open expanse by California Pizza Kitchen overlooking the food court with Chik-Fil-A, Nathan’s and Mrs. Field’s When I was in high school, there was a movie theater there too, and to this day, even though I know it’s gone, I somehow forget and find myself standing in front of a wall wondering where to buy tickets. No movies or curly fries today, though. Instead, up the elevator to level three.
We passed by Lindt where a large woman in an apron offered up a silver tray of truffles and greet-the-public smile plastered on her face. We each took one then sat on a bench near Panera Bread Company to eat.
When I say eat, I mean as an event. You take only a small bite, letting the taste cover every surface of your mouth with not-too-sweet, creamy, gorgeous chocolate. I shared my dark chocolate with Lila, and she traded me for a bit of her white. I hadn’t experienced anything like that in a very long time.
Cacao beans grow all over the Bocas archipelago. One of our last nights there, we splurged and stayed at the La Loma Jungle Lodge. Wooden cabins built on stilts in the middle of Isla Bastiementos. The only way out was a boat in one direction and a good pair of shoes and machete in any other.
But why would we want to go anywhere else when we could pad barefoot around the grounds, an old cacao plantation. The owners cultivate the beans and use them to make cakes and cookies they serve during long luxurious meals in the main lodge house at night. During the day, two local women work behind the main lodge to grind the beans into paste, then dry the paste into a fine rich cocoa powder. Still a very long journey from there to the chocolate we held in our hands on that bench our first day back.
Meanwhile, folks bustled around us going who knows where and moving faster than anyone ever moved on the islands.
I’d forgotten about rushing. There was never a need on Bocas. Rush where? The beach, waves and little red frogs found only on those islands would still be there. It would still be hot. It might rain, but it might not.
Every day, we walked down a sandy path to one of the beaches where we collected shells, sponge and anything else we found washed on shore. Lila ran ahead of me, sometimes lagged behind. She disappeared behind a bunch of palm trees only to materialize again on the other side of a wooden plank passing over a little ravine filled with tiny red fiddler crabs and the occasional large blue. Sometimes Lila scored with a raggedy toy washed up from the water. We brought back our treasures, painted them or with them. Popped the bubbles in the sea weed. Then made dinner and went to bed when we were tired.
Shopping, generally only for supplies, meant a boat into town to one of the stores there. My favorite was Lorelei’s super gourmet where sometimes chocolate chips and cans of White Rose chickpeas, the bottom shelf store brand I know from New York. graced the shelves.
That’s when Lila took off her shoes and started running down the shiny brown and white marble floor to disappear behind a shifting curtain of people moving into GAP, out of The Icing, stopping at Starbucks for a coffee and into check the latest great deal at BCBG.
I rushed to catch up with her, panicking a bit, and guided her back to our bench where her grimy beach kissed shoes sat untouched. I asked her to put her shoes back on.
She asks me why. How do I explain?