Tag Archives: panama

Panamania – Gnarly Goggles

This footage was shot by Becky after a day surfing on the Isla Burica, a desert island in the far north of Panama. It comes with a song from the Ribbons EP about the upside of heartbreak, and it comes with a story about fear.

Stumbling through the jungle looking for a place to sleep, we find a chicken hanging upside down off a makeshift clothesline, squawking. The chicken seems to belong to a couple of grass-roofed huts. I’m guessing it’s dinner. A couple of horses are tethered nearby. The whole thing is like something out of Tribe – apart from the surfboards.

The surfboards, which are newer than ours, belong to a pair of sexy, dark-skinned brothers. They tell us about the mythical wave we’ve come to surf – a fast right that breaks over rocks on the far side of an uninhabited island that sits half a mile offshore, guarding the unmanned coastal border between Panama and Costa Rica. Meeting the brothers is a stroke of luck. We expected to have to paddle across the channel, but they offer us a ride in their inflatable canoe. We arrange to meet them at dawn.

It’s dawn. I feel sick. This might be because all I’ve consumed is very strong black coffee, brewed like porridge over a driftwood fire. Or it might be exhaustion due to the massively effortful journey to get here. A two-day hike from the Caribbean to the Pacific involving several boats, four increasingly decrepit collectivos, one night in the Pension Balboa (named after the local beer) overlooking an all-night bar specializing in ear-splitting Reggaeton (I spent most of the sleepless hours watching staggering drunks try to mount their long-suffering horses), another collectivo (zero suspension), a very painful two-hour walk in the midday heat through the jungle with boards, backpacks and enough food to last a week, the chance encounter with the brothers, a sleepless night in a hammock wondering if those very strange lights out at sea are drug boats (apparently we are camping in a clearing recently vacated by police looking to catch human mules heading north on foot), and the twenty minute trip across the channel in the squashy inflatable, our four surfboards floating behind us, chained together by their leashes.

I am scared before I even see the wave. This is partly because of its mystery – it’s not on Magic Seaweed or in the Stormrider – and partly because of the hyped-up way the brothers are talking about it. They’re saying it’s a big day, although the channel itself is sheltered from swell, which is why we have to go to the island. I am convinced I won’t be able to handle it. Sure enough, when we finally get close enough I see exactly what I was expecting to see – a hideously hollow wave, full of rocks, and closing out on the bigger sets, which are too big for me. The brothers are amped. They slip and slide over the rocks, wait for a gap between sets long enough to allow them to jump in and paddle maniacally out of the danger zone.

‘Nice little right’ says Becky.

Becky’s brain is wired up differently to mine. This is why surfing with her is so much fun. It’s also why it’s frequently so terrifying.

Panic-stricken, I search for a place to paddle out that does not involve rocks and danger zones.  I don’t see any. This island is made of rocks. Nothing but rocks. And dense coconut forest, and crabs. Not friendly hermit crabs dressed in bottle tops, either, but weird black jumping crabs that hurl themselves through the air like batman, clearing distances upwards of two feet in a nanosecond. I don’t like these crabs. They’re inhuman. I don’t like this island. I don’t like this trip. Life is shit. I want to go home. I want to go home and sit in my shed and watch TV and be safe. But I can’t. It’s too late. I’ve come too far.

I look around for Becky. I’m going to suggest we walk a bit, look for a nicer wave, sack it off. But she’s already gone, slipping and sliding over the rocks like the brothers, falling, dropping her board, picking herself up. One of the brothers manages a very steep take-off and gets a  long ride back to the rocks. He waves at Becky, who is already paddling out. I am still standing rooted to the spot, feeling sick.

These days my life seems to be full of moments like this. Moments where I find myself in a situation so far out of my comfort zone it’s almost funny. Posting things I’ve written, standing up in front of people and singing songs I’ve made, reading from my book in public, dealing with the rejection and failure that comes with being alive and not hiding in my shed watching TV.

Often I’m a pussy. I duck out of waves, miss opportunities, don’t make phone calls. But sometimes I’m not a pussy, and that’s how I’ve finally learned something big and slightly embarrassing.

It’s not life. It’s ME. I’m wearing GNARLY GOGGLES.

I did paddle out that day, and I didn’t die. In fact, as soon as I started focusing on the task in hand rather than the monsters in my mind, I started enjoying myself.

‘Nice little right’ I shouted over to Becky.

I will be singing at the Shine On festival in Totnes on Sunday. A nice little festival. I plan to leave the gnarly goggles at home and enjoy myself. Watch this space.

Bookshelf #1 Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I love books about as much as I love anything. That’s why I wrote one. It’s also why I have decided to share my love of particular books and their authors with a special “bookshelf” post each month. I won’t be attempting exhaustive critiques. I will simply be sharing my personal connections, inspirations and loves. I’m kicking off with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who died last Thursday, aged 87.

GGM

The first Gabriel Garcia Marquez book I ever read was not a masterwork of magical realism, or a profound meditation on the human capacity for romantic love (these would come later) but a slim and little-known travel book called Clandestine in Chile.

This hundred-page paperback tells the true story of Miguel Littin, a Chilean film director who was exiled after the 1973 military coup and then returned in disguise, risking everything to “bring the world a truer picture of life under Pinochet.” Littin told his story to Marquez, who re-told it in the first person, using eighteen hours of taped interviews.

The blurb on the back of my well-travelled copy provides hard evidence of the truth in it:

“On 28 November 1986, in Valparaiso, the Chilean authorities impounded and burned 15 000 copies of this book.”

When I visited Valparaiso myself, twenty years after Littin’s clandestine journey and thirty years after the coup, the foreign city was delivered to me full of meaning. Thanks to Marquez, I had already been there in my imagination. Thanks to the fact of my humanity, my imagination is every bit as real as my reality.

When I later came to read Love in the Time of Cholera I found even more truth, and it was a truth that felt heightened, rather than diminished, by the quantities of magic in it.

The older I get, the more complicated the relationship between reality, imagination and truth seems to become. Reality is so subjective – having to be funnelled first through our senses and then through our various languages – that I can’t help suspecting that there is no such thing. Truth, on the other hand, is everywhere. We feel it, see it, imagine it and know it – even when we can’t talk about it. Which is where stories come in, and why great storytellers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez are mourned with nothing less than the heartfelt love of perfect strangers.

It is through stories – film, television, books – that we get to share our actual experience of truth (as opposed to reality as presented by various news media) and therefore feel less alone.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez made me feel less alone when I was sitting on the concrete floor of a South American bus station and navigating a tidal wave of sadness associated with my latest break-up. I was reassured to learn “that the heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and that thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burden of the past.”

I felt less alone after finally meeting Jose Arcadio Buendia, the protagonist of One Hundred Years of Solitude, an inventor whose magic-inspired inventions lead him further and further from his ordinary life, into all kinds of chaos, and yet “even those convinced of his madness left work and family to follow him.”

Perhaps one of the side effects of progress in science and technology, of staking everything on the illusion of empiricism, is forgetting the value of magic. Another ancient woodland is cut down to make room for a motorway service station. We are left staring into “the abyss of disenchantment.”

But perhaps good stories can rescue us, helping us to understand that we do not understand. Putting us in our place.

“The first of the line is tied to a tree and the last is being eaten by the ants.”

I read One Hundred Years of Solitude this year, one border crossing from Colombia, where Gabriel Garcia Marquez was born. I found it difficult at first, in the same way that strange countries can be difficult at first. There were so many characters, and they were so fantastic. They said things people don’t say, they lived according to strange rules and kept the oddest of habits, they waged unwinnable wars and their thoughts were pure poetry. It was only after I had been with these people for several hundred pages that I finally began to accept the truth of them, which was accompanied by a feeling of relief, because I was also accepting the truth of me – which is that my grip on ‘reality’ is tenuous, and it is the poetry of my imagination – my existential solitude – that makes me who I am.

As Salman Rushdie said of Marquez in a recent essay in the New York Times

“He was a dreamer who believed in the truth of dreams.”

Becky and I both read One Hundred Years of Solitude, one after the other, in various Central American jungles, while young men rode past at dawn on horseback, listening to pop music on their ipods. We both struggled with it, wrestled with it, woke each other up with the most poetic bits of it, were desperate to understand the truth of it, and eventually loved it with an inexplicable, unreasonable, tearful love.

Just like life.

To quote Salman Rushdie again;

“For such magnificence, our only possible reaction is gratitude.”

I will be singing about my book ‘The Ribbons Are For Fearlessness’ on 29th April at 6.30 in the Falmouth Bookseller.

 

Panamania – Night Surfing

NS3

‘Surfing is not a sport, it’s a disease’ said my friend Dom the other day, on Facecrack. Here’s an example:

It’s our last night in Panama. It’s dark. We’re sleeping. I say sleeping. For fiscal reasons, the trip has not been as restful as we expected. Aside from five luxurious nights on the Caribbean, in bunkbeds in a dorm shared with six other people, we have been roughing it. At first we used tents, but then Becky had a snake in hers. A small Boa. She was lucky it wasn’t a Fer de Lance – the venomous, aggressive version of Boas, known as Ekees by the locals, their name for the letter X.

So we moved into hammocks. At first we put the tents up beside the hammocks, to put our stuff in – money and passports, that kind of thing. Then we ran out of money and couldn’t be bothered to put the tents up, so it was just us and the stars and the driftwood fires we cooked on, morning noon and night. There are advantages to running out of money. We re-mapped the night sky, for one thing. There was the machete, the coconut, the pelican (I had to work to win Becky over to that one), the cafe con leche (that one, too). There is something about naming your own night sky. This was the northern hemisphere (just). Since returning, when I step outside my shed and spot the machete smiling down at me I am reminded that the whole tropical thing was actually real and not a dream. Then I quickly go back inside and sit huddled by the fire, watching endless repetitions of Nashville and weeping.*

But that night I was still on holiday. Only I wasn’t sleeping. Not just the usual kind of not sleeping you do in hammocks in the jungle – a sort of half-sleep, with one mammalian inner eye always alert to the weird sounds the crabs, iguanas, racoons, potential jaguars, howler monkeys etc make and the other mammallian inner eye alert to the fact that one’s feet are accidentally wrapped around one’s head. But this night I am really not sleeping. I am listening to the sound of waves breaking. Swell has arrived. We’ve been waiting for it. Now it’s here. And we’re leaving.

My third mammalian inner eye knows that the perfect wave that has caused us to set up house under this almond tree in the jungle and that has been a little too small thus far, is only surfable at high tide, because of rocks. I’ve already had some interactions with these rocks and do not wish to have any more. We have no watches, phones or other devices and yet, judging by the position of the machete in the night sky, and using my fourth mammalian inner eye, I think it’s probably about 3.30am. It takes forty five minutes to walk up the beach to the wave, due to difficult terrain. I know that if we wait until it’s light it’ll be too late. I’m convinced that if we go now we’ll get there just before dawn. We’ll be in the sea at first light and catch some of the swell before the tide drops out and we have to go and catch our plane. I glance across at Becky. She is sleeping. It’s night.

‘Becky’ I hiss, wondering if I’m doing the right thing.

‘Hmm?’

She is not sleeping.

‘I’m going to go for a surf, do you want to come?’

Becky looks at me, through one of her actual eyes.

‘It’s night.’

‘I think I heard a cockerel crow.’

This is not true.

‘Okay’ says Becky, and gets up out of her hammock. She is already wearing her bikini.

I love my friends. I really, really love my friends.

An hour later we arrive at the wave. It’s a delicious, perfect, peeling right-hand point. We think it’s breaking. We think it’s quite good (bigger). We don’t know for sure, because we can’t really see it. It’s still night. Luckily there is a moon. There is no sign of first light. I convince Becky there won’t be any sharks (I have no fear of sharks, simply because I have never seen one and am therefore unsure they actually exist. Becky has seen a few and possesses a healthy fear.)

Sharks come out at night. We get in anyway.

There is no wind. The surface of the sea looks like black oil. I can just make out the rocks as I paddle over them, glowing green in the moonlight. I have no idea where I am in relation to the land. I have no idea where the waves are breaking. I find out by getting nailed. Getting nailed in the dark requires me to use my most fish-like senses – my skin, my lack of breath. I can’t use my eyes. I am totally disorientated. Back on the surface, I am still totally disorientated. I try to catch waves. It’s a game of chance, but I luck into a couple. It’s just like those trust games, when you fall backwards and hope somebody will catch you. I paddle and hope I’m in the right place. I have no idea. I try to feel when to jump to my feet. Time slows down.

Back at the camp a few hours later it is still night. I realise my fourth mammlian inner eye was mistaken. There is no sign of first light. We are eating porridge, cooked on a driftwood fire.

‘The best part was watching you’ said Becky. ‘Like a negative photograph.’

I knew exactly what she meant. Soon after we paddled out, while I was still trying to get my bearings, I saw Becky take off on a steep, head high wave. She looked like a superhero. Which is why we do it. Obviously.

We go to sleep. Again. When we wake up it’s day. And the wind has gone onshore.

And the moral of that story is – if it’s good at night, don’t wait till morning.

My book was published this week. You can buy it here. The EP to go with it is late, due to the fact that I spent January in Panama. Previews and info here.

*Obviously I don’t really watch Nashville – far too cool.