I could see naked, unencumbered, virgin beach in both directions for miles. The sand under my feet was cool. The sun set over the land behind me. In the distance were some small hills covered in green. I could see no ships or man made objects of any kind. It’s hard to believe that there is still such untouched land, where few people ever go. I shared the beach only with crabs who popped into their holes as I approached, the sound of my footsteps undoubtedly heralding my coming.
As the beach is a favorite nesting ground for large turtles, there were some protected turtle nests, a sign that someone is somewhere around. But I could see no one.
I was to learn that the turtles come out to lay eggs late at night. That’s when the local environmentalists track them with red flashlights. Any other light would disturb their natural rhythms. When the turtle is done, to protect the eggs of these endangered turtles, the locals build wire cages around their nests. Otherwise the wild dogs who roam the beach would eat the eggs.
The local inhabitants of the island also include some people that eat eggs. It’s not legal, but it’s condoned as long as they aren’t eating too many. These people collect some of the eggs from each nest, leaving a sufficient number to protect the species, or so they say. If they don’t eat the eggs, they sell them as a delicacy in the nearby city market, where an underground network of buyers willingly pay good money for the illegal trade. Everyone is happy. The islanders can earn a living. The city dwellers can get a delicacy. The police, who are supposed to enforce the law against selling this commodity, turn the other cheek or willingly accept a bribe. They have other things to worry about, like drug smugglers who use these beaches in the dead of night to ply their trade.
I am on Isla Cañas, sometimes called Isla de Cañas, an island on the southern tip of the Azuero Penisula. It’s one of the many underdeveloped places the Peace Corps has a volunteer serving. To get here I took a bus to an unmarked spot on the highway out of a nearby “city.” From there I walked to a waiting boat in a swamp of mangroves not visible by a casual passerby. You need to have a guide to know where to look. I had to roll up my pants and take off my shoes to slog through dark black mud near the shore to get on the boat.
The mangroves are a protected area. Like the turtles, they are in danger of disappearing. They are essential in the eco-system of the area, however. It is where crabs and other important animals on the food chain live.
One of the creatures that lives in the mangroves is the crocodile. On this day none are spotted. But they are there for sure, peering out at the “boat” from behind heavy foliage that lines the water’s edge wondering, “Who are these infrequent visitors?”
The boat that meets us is no more than a dug out tree trunk, more of a canoe than a boat. Laid widthwise across the narrow girth of the canoe are benches made of wood with wooden legs nailed on to the bench. They wobble. They are not nailed to the boat. They aren’t steady. You can only fit one person on each bench. So the boat can only hold about 6 people. The boat is powered by a small outboard motor and a local fisherman who knows these waters like the back of his hand.
Once on the boat, it is a short ride to the island, across a narrow strip of water that separates the mangrove-lined shore from the island. At the island end of the trip, at high tide, the boat can pull right up to the “beach,” which on the bay side of the island is just dirt. We arrived at low tide. So, as we did at the beginning of the ride, we slogged through black goop to get to shore. A small thatched-roofed building with wooden benches around it near the landing gave us a place to dry off, and, once the hot sun baked the mud, to wipe it off and put our clothes back on.
We carried our gear on our backs. In the boat, in addition to the gear on our backs, we wore life jackets on our chests, just in case. Arriving at the island, other than the small thatched hut, and a larger one nearby, you can see nothing. It’s a short walk down a dirt road until you reach the “center” of the town on the island. There is a three-room primary school, a pay telephone, a small “store” run out of the side of someone’s house, and a large soccer field.
The larger thatched-roofed building, we will come to learn, is the local restaurant, where turtle eggs are among the dishes served, along with fried fish of the daily catch.
Once we reach the school which serves as the center of town, there are scattered houses off dirt roads emanating in all directions. All roads converge here.
I have come to paradise. It’s where everyone dreams of going. Where few people go. Where few people are. In the middle of nowhere. Tropical. Silent. Deserted.
Arrangements have been made for me and those accompanying me to stay at houses of people that live on the island. The island has a permanent population of about 100 families. Scientists and geographers are infrequent visitors. Even less frequent are the environmentalists that work for the government and are supposed to ensure that the turtles are protected. Anyone that visits needs to register with the government first and pay a license to enter. It’s a requirement that appears to be commonly overlooked by visitors, and, more often, simply not enforced. The entire island is designated a protected area.
I am assigned to live with Familia Vergara. There is no electricity in their house. Although some other houses have no electricity, the Vergaras had theirs turned off because they couldn’t afford it. This is a poor community, but the people are very happy. They live hand to mouth, off the land and sea. Some are farmers. There is a large watermelon crop, the earliest in the nation. Most are fisherman. Some trade in turtle eggs. A very few take the boat I arrived in to work each day in the city. The children run around naked kicking a soccer ball or eating mangoes from one of the many trees that cover the island.
Even though our quarters don’t have electricity, we do have a flush toilet, out in a closet behind the house. It looks like it was once a latrine, but has been converted into a toilet now. Most of the houses don’t have flush toilets. We consider ourselves lucky.
In the closet with the toilet we also have a cold water “shower.” Throughout the country, most people only do not have hot water. They say they prefer it that way. Really, given the tropical heat, the cold water shower feels good. It takes a little getting used to at first, though. And the water comes out of the tap on the warmish side anyway. The trip in the pipe from the source to the shower allows for plenty of time for the hot tropical air to warm the water a bit. This isn’t like any other shower. It’s just a water pipe cut off a little above the height of my head. There is no shower head. That’s something you see in the developed world. In the majority of the world which is to say the third world, you only get an open pipe under which you shower, if you have a shower at all.
I am here as a Peace Corps volunteer. I am here with my wife. We are two of a small group of “over 50er’s.” That is, we waited until later in life to become volunteers, when we had more to offer, we thought. We are learning about the education system as applied to remote schools. This is about as remote as they get. Life’s so hard here that it’s difficult to get teachers to stay here. Teachers who are assigned to teach here are frequently absent. They regularly catch the last boat on Thursday and don’t return until Monday, leaving the students to their own devices all day Friday. There is no substitute teacher system. So when the teacher is away, the students are free.
I have always dreamed of going to paradise. Paradise, by definition, is a place where there are few other people or maybe no other people. In paradise, then, there is likely not to be too many of the services we all have come to take for granted.
Think of yourself stuck on a deserted island. There won’t be a toilet. There won’t be electricity. There won’t be drinkable water out of a tap. As part of our Peace Corps life we get to explore the unexplored. We actually go where others dare not go. We are the pioneers to the ends of the earth bringing the ideas of the 21st century to the backwoods of the world.
But if too many people take advantage of the raw beauty that the paradises of the world offer, the places no longer are paradise. They get degraded to garbage dumps. A common problem in the third world is what to do with waste. You see it everywhere. You see it in the city and in the countryside and on this island. There is no garbage collection service. There are no waste barrels. People have to burn their garbage. Burning garbage pollutes and eventually destroys the environment. One of the dilemmas of our work is to attempt to come up with ways to preserve the environment while bringing sustainable development to remote areas.
But the problem is more extensive than preserving the environment. People who come here do so precisely because it is raw. But with increasing numbers of people, the islanders change. They start doing things differently. They stop working as subsistence farmers and start offering tours. They change their way of life. People come to see the undisturbed beaches of this remote location. But their coming in itself changes the dynamic of what they have come to see. They end up changing the peacefulness they come to experience.
Meanwhile, I am still in shell shock about being in paradise. I hadn’t thought all this through quite as thoroughly as I should have. Even if I had tried to do that, I may have missed a lot in my thinking. I would have missed the fact that I would be lacking so many things I take for granted.
For me the lesson is learned. As we go through our 27-month Peace Corps adventure, I have to remember over and over again the lesson of Isla Cañas: When Going to Paradise Bring Toilet Paper.