Dispatches from Taboga

Taboga is a small island on the Pacific side of Panamá. It’s a forty-five minute ferry ride from the Amador Causeway, in Panamá City.

I hadn’t been to the island since I was a kid growing on the Isthmus. But it came to mind as I planned my first trip in two years to check on Mom in Panamá.

In addition to a Thanksgiving visit with Mom and friends, I wanted to give my nervous system a break. A break from the pandemic. From work. From uncertainty. From life in a polarized America. From all of it. Solo.

Taboga came to mind. I found a hotel and booked three nights of the week I planned to spend in the country.

The plan: relax on an island with a fully vaccinated population of 1,500, within steps of a beach, surrounded by jungle, with fresh seafood to eat, and no cars. I’d simply eat, read, write, nap, wander, discover.

The following are my Taboga dispatches.

A view from the ferry ride to Taboga

Taboga Tapestry

Taboga was settled in 1524. It’s got two supernatural patrons: St. Peter, patron saint of fishermen, and La Virgen del Carmen.

Francisco Pizarro’s house is preserved here. He’s the Conquistador who led the destruction of the Incan Empire. He landed in Taboga as a 24-year old adventurer seeking fame and fortune in the New World.

By the time Pizarro was 32 he commanded the Spanish garrison at Taboga. They built the ships and planned the attacks that would result in the destruction, looting, and enslavement of Peru’s indigenous civilization.

Loot headed to Spain would arrive in Panamá City on the Pacific side and be transported the 50 miles across the isthmus on the Las Cruces trail to the Atlantic, to be loaded onto warships headed back to Spain.

So much gold, silver and other goods attracted pirates, sponsored by Spain’s rival — the British Crown. A Welch privateer, Henry Morgan, once attacked Panamá City overland from the Caribbean side and sacked the city. The Spaniards reconstructed the city a few miles away in a more defensible location. A park now protects the burned remains of the original city, including a stone bell tower.

Taboga was a frequent target of pirates, who sacked and burned the town numerous times. Lots of pirate legends here. Including stories of supernatural protection offered by the patron saints. Locals maintain shrines honoring the patrons.

The San Pedro Church (below, with a basketball court in front of it) is the second oldest in the Western Hemisphere.

I learned that Taboga’s drinking water comes from an Israeli desalination plant. Israel installed the plant and trained locals to maintain it.

There are historical ties between Panamá and the State of Israel. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, US law prohibited American military involvement in the effort of Europe’s surviving Jews to re-establish a Jewish state in its historical homeland, something that had not existed since the Roman Empire crushed a revolt more than a millennium previously.

The newly formed nation desperately needed air power to prevent from being the site of another Holocaust at the hands of its neighbors. Enterprising folks cobbled together a collection of planes. In one scheme, volunteers flew decommissioned WWII aircraft, patriated to the Republic of Panamá, to the Middle East to serve in the nascent Air Force for the new state of Israel.

Panamá has a vibrant Jewish population. I imagine this has been the case ever since waves of people came to the New World from Spain.

Shortly after Spain managed to bring the Iberian peninsula under Catholic control by conquering the last remaining Islamic principality, Grenada, in 1492, Muslims and Jews were forced to convert or be expelled. Those who failed to comply faced the Inquisition. Historians say that in Seville, the fires of the Inquisition burned day and night. Many took their chances emigrating to the New World.

Moorish Spain had been full of resplendent cities of science, art, and learning. In vibrant, thriving communities, Jews, Christians, and Muslims coexisted.

All that went away over the several hundred years it took for the crusade known as the “Reconquista” to bring the Iberian peninsula back into Christendom. Something that had not been the case since Muslim Berber armies crossed from North Africa and landed at a place named after the general who led the campaign — Gibraltar. The Moors went on to defeat the Visigothic Kingdom and conquer the rest of Iberia. Only the small Kingdom of Astorias remained in the north, paying tribute to the new Caliph. Hispania became Al Andalus.

So the year 1492 is not only when Colombus landed in the New World. It’s also the year Grenada fell and the Reconquista completed. This is the context for the Spanish Empire’s subsequent exploration, conquest, and colonization of the New World.

You tug on one thread of history and realize it’s all connected in a tapestry forming the story of human beings on this planet. The threads exposed in Taboga run deep.

El Chino

I’d forgotten how, in Panamá, convenience stores operated by Chinese-Panamanians are so ubiquitous that “Chinese” is the shorthand reference for “Convenience Store”.

So instead of saying “I’m going to the convenience store to buy coffee” you’d say “I’m going to the Chinese to get some coffee”.

I asked “where is there a convenience store?” And the answer was, “There’s a Chinese just down the street”. Even in Taboga.

Fui al Chino para comprar unas vainas = I went to the Chinese to buy some stuff.

As with people, it’s the idiosyncrasies that endear.

Look inspired by the Fremen of the deep desert of Arakkis

A Taboga Morning

November 23, 2021, Taboga sunrise

The Return

Sad to leave Taboga. I wish I could stay one more day. Three days were just enough time to begin to shed accumulated stress. Next time I go on a retreat plan for four days.

I had arrived with a list of things to do: meditate, hike the hills, catch up with reading, make progress on a writing project, check out a Mindvalley class online, plan Thanksgiving, and even some work work.

I did none of that. And felt more relaxed than I had in some time.

I napped. Dipped in the pool. Reflected and journaled. Ate simple but fresh food – mostly seafood and fried plantains. Watched zero TV. Walked around town. Wrote about other things. Went to sleep early. Woke up early. Stretched.

A new intention for me: incorporate these types of R&R breaks into my life more regularly.

If you visit Taboga, I can recommend the Taboga Palace. The location is across from the pier. Gorgeous views. An infinity pool. Air-conditioned rooms. Close to the beach. David, the owner, is a delight to chat with.

There is no nightlife, so if you want to party this isn’t the place. Most visitors arrive on day trips so count on late breakfast and early dinners because things open with the first ferry and close when the last one departs. Oh, and don’t expect to find anything but instant coffee.

I recommend a tour. I met up with a woman giving tours on a golf cart type vehicle. She drove me around town and gave an overview of the local lore. With 1500 people on the island, everyone knows everyone’s business. So I got an earful of island bochinche (gossip) as she pointed to houses and told me their stories.

Without the constant distractions in my normal routine, I processed uncomfortable feelings that arose for me. Like grief. The island provided a safe place for me to embrace whatever came up and to appreciate the diverse experiences that come with being human.

On the ferry ride back, a seagull escorted me home.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull

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