The Essence of Wailidup

(A short story inspired by photos my wife took in Panama.)

“You can never give enough money to a poor man,” smiled ferryman Raphael, pocketing his fee and steering his canoe into the choppy waters off El Porvenir. “Kuna. Like me,” he said proudly, nodding to the colourful family of five, who had quickly leapt into the bow of the boat as I stood counting out my cash. This annoyed me at first, but I soon discovered that sitting near the chugging engine helped massage my back and neck, which had taken quite a beating on the last section of jungle track from Panama City. On the downside, sitting near the engine also meant that Raphael felt obliged to make small talk as he steered the boat toward the island of Wailidup, the sun dropping into the Caribbean like an apricot into an expensive cocktail.

Panama Boat

“Are you on holiday?” asked Raphael.
“No, I’m working,” I lied.
“What is it you do?” he asked.
“I have come to capture the essence of Wailidup,” I replied.
Raphael briefly considered my imaginary assignment, then smiled and shook his head. “And for this you are paid?”
“For this I am paid,” I replied, watching the sun’s dying rays set fire to the orange and red plumage of the Kuna family, who lounged contentedly against one another, the smallest child trailing her hand in the glistening water.
“You are a lucky man,” mused Raphael. “But how will you capture the essence of Wailidup?”
“In a bottle,” I joked.
“Can you capture the sun?” smiled Raphael.
“No,” I replied.
“The waves and the warm breeze?”
“Then what will you put in the bottle?”
“I’m not sure. What would you put in the bottle?”
Raphael gave it some thought. “Some water from the sea perhaps. The finest white sand. Coconut milk, of course. And lots of scorched fish!”

The children turned to watch us laugh, flashing shy smiles and turning away quickly when I stuck out my tongue. Raphael whistled across the water and waved to a fisherman who stood casting a net off his canoe. The long silhouette waved back and shouted words I could not understand. Raphael smiled and shook his head, as friends do when sharing a joke. Then he fell silent, as if in reverence to the coming night.

The sun had set when Raphael cut the engine and allowed the bow to growl smoothly onto the beach. Flickering torches lit up towering palms that rose into the night like wooden columns among the bamboo cabañas. We clambered out of the boat and I bade farewell to Raphael, crossing his palm with a generous tip.

“A song perhaps,” he mused. “Recounting your journey and your desire to capture the essence.” said Raphael.
“A song?” I asked.
“Yes, accompanied by a hundred flutes,” smiled Raphael, placing his hand behind his ear and then pointing in the direction of the lilting tones coming from the village.
“An excellent idea. Thank you,” I said, as a wave gently washed my feet.
“I hope you find the right ingredients,” laughed Raphael, pushing his canoe back through the shallows into darker waters.

Then I shouldered my pack and made my way towards the lights, the warm sand forming rough socks around my ankles. I was hungry and tired, but also comforted by the journey. I would eat and sleep and wait until morning before asking the Saila if he was willing to return the wedding ring my mother had given him.

(PS: I’m not sure how this story ends. So please feel free to post your own ending below or, better yet, share your own Panamanian anecdotes.)

Richard de Nooy