Gleefully off the grid

My walk around Chichime Island revealed I was staying on just a small bump of sand with a perimeter that could be accomplished in about 10 minutes, and had the most pristine beaches I’d seen on any trip I’ve taken. Nearly white sand, crystal blue waters, and practically no one around. The skies cleared up and I parked myself in a grove of coconut trees on the beach where I alternated reading and napping – it was still the same day I awoke at 5am to catch the 4×4 shuttle to the docks, and I was tired. I felt a bit guilty at first, stuck in a backpacker’s mindset – aren’t I supposed to be doing something? It’s strange that relaxing to this extent can feel lazy whether on holiday or not, but I finally let it go. I can’t imagine how productivity on this island would even look anyway.

It didn’t take long for me to run into Felix and Martin, the two German gents I’d talked to earlier that morning back at the hostel. They were staying at a different camp about a two minute walk away from mine, but we became an after-supper club of sorts, staying up later than absolutely everyone else (not that there were more than like, 20 tourists on the entire island anyway) drinking Ron Abuelo with Coke and lime and conjuring up ideas of what the illustration of Ron himself on the bottles would say.


In hindsight, I don’t think “Sir Ron” speaks English, and he’s probably more of a “señor” than a sir, but in any language, these are probably things he would say (he’s a bit bipolar.)

In the morning I awoke in my tiny beachfront hut to the soft sound of a conch shell being blown, a signal to myself and the other six people staying on my camp that breakfast is ready. It was quarter after 7am, though time hardly mattered here, and moseying into the meal at any slow speed was acceptable. Breakfast was some sort of egg with cheese over bread and fresh fruit, everyone seated in one of the larger open huts, all at the table together looking like some sort of United Nations family feast, with the Kunas bringing everyone their food one plate at a time. The other guests were from Holland, Chile, and Switzerland, all fluent in Spanish except for me, so with conversation jumping several languages at a time it was hard for me to keep up. At dinner the night before I just read my book, almost unaware that anybody else even spoke English at all.

I had planned to spend only one night on Chichime, but this morning I knew I didn’t want to leave yet. Being disconnected from phone, wifi, electricity became liberating, staying an extra night felt like a “ha!” at the outside world. I found the Kuna man who had brought us here on his boat and asked to stay one more day. He said it was probably fine but he would check to see how many other people would be coming later on to be sure. (Nobody did.)

At 2pm he took the 7 of us from our camp out on his boat to see a different island. He explained the plans en Español: “something something something, perro, blah blah, insert… more… Spanish… here.” When he was done the United Nations family meal camp turned to me.

“Did you catch any of that?” someone asked.

“Uhh.. Dog?”

They laughed. “The name of where we are going is Dog Island.”

Well okay then.

Dog Island was even smaller than ours, and not nearly as nice, which made me wonder why we were coming here. As we stepped off the boat I realized I hadn’t even brought my book and I wondered what the hell I was supposed to do for the next few hours. Four people from the camp brought snorkeling gear and were already out swimming with their faces in the water, and I was pretty sure that if only I’d known more Spanish I would have have gotten the gist of this during the Kuna man’s explanation and not simply “dog”.

The Dutch guy emerged from the water first: “You have to get out there! There’s a sunken ship with all kinds of coral and fish” he told me. I made excuses: “I don’t have gear”, “I’ve never snorkeled”, “I didn’t put any effort into my swim lessons as a kid and I have a lot of regrets about it now” (okay, a fact, though I didn’t actually tell him that) but when it became clear he wanted to help, I figured why not try. He used his Spanish to ask someone working on the island for a goggles set which I could loan for $5, and taught me to breathe without panicking- because it’s true, as the very first thing I felt after putting my face in the water was definitely “I’m drowning”. Despite the learning curve I eventually was able to snorkel out a ways on my own, seeing for myself this sunken ship with corals and the brightest, most beautiful tropical fish. This became the highlight of my time on Chichime. I was so, so glad I had asked to stay the second day.


On return I went to Felix and Martin’s camp but didn’t see them around, and without being able to shoot a text or write a paper note (I had no paper, and besides, it would have blown away) I wrote a “Hey! Drinks after dinner?” message with a Sharpie on a coconut and left it outside of their hut. It was fun to return to the times of childhood when we would just knock on our neighbors’ doors to ask if they wanted to come out and play. The simplicity of the island was comforting. I dined al fresco, met up for those after dinner drinks, and retreated to my wooden hut, no need for a blanket, breathing the warm salty air, sleeping soundly.



Photo cred: Felix. Coconut cred: me.