Archive for October 24th, 2009


For a few days I was a kind of Robinson Crusoe on a small island off the coast of Panama.

It’s another personal adventure I’ve given to Layla in The Compass Master, but unlike my Bosnian one this story is staying in the manuscript.

I use the island for the flashback scene of Layla’s first encounter with Zach Sandoval, her future lover and co-hero in Compass. She had gone there to get away from a broken heart. I went because I was unemployed and sinking into a depression so black and despairing that only an extreme escape could save me. So with what money I could spare (and really I couldn’t spare a dime) I bought a ticket to Panama, stayed on one island on the Atlantic side, then in the mountains, and eventually ended up camping on the beach of an island on the Pacific coast.

the_island

The island is a few miles in circumference and has only a handful of inhabitants. Besides the monkeys and iguanas some Guaymi Indians and white people live in far-scattered places, and at one end, perched on a cliff, is a funky bar/café surrounded by a couple haciendas and hammocks rented out to the low-budget travelers who come by. Frank is the German ex-hippy who owns and runs the place, and maybe it has a name but everyone just calls it Frank’s place. It makes an appearance in my book too, as does Frank. I decided that it was a memorable place for Layla and Zach to meet.

My first night on the island I stayed in a small hacienda that looks out over the water and toward the mainland fishing village of Boca Chica. The next day a fisherman in a hand-made boat took me to the other end of the island and the isolated beach where I set up camp. My tent and campfire were above the waterline and at the edge of the jungle, which was peaceful during the day but at night roared to life as wild animals called endlessly to each other.

Every night obsidian darkness cloaked the world around me, and the only lights were the million stars and moon and a rare planetary display of Jupiter, Mars, Venus and Saturn. And every night I made my way through that darkness and onto the beach with its volcanic sand and gazed up at the sky. In one hand I carried my flashlight and in the other my machete. I slept with them both, too.

During the days I meditated, walked, climbed, swam, and let myself heal. Whenever I ran out of water I hiked the couple miles to Frank’s place; once I got lost in the dense jungle,

the_jungle

and another time I made it to a cove where I flagged down a fisherman to take me where I was going. Another time I stumbled onto Christina’s place. She’s a cool retired German nurse who lives in one of the island’s few houses and has a shack in a shaded cove. The shack has only three walls and is smaller than a walk-in closet, but that was all she needed to sell beer to the fishermen and cook me some great pollo y ariz. She also had an outdoor faucet where I washed the sand off my legs and filled up my water jugs. We talked about books and how Mark Twain is so great.

I wish that like Layla I’d met someone like Zach while I was on that island. But other than partying one night with dreadheads and a few other travelers and going to another island to body surf with them, I was very alone most of the time, and in hindsight this was good. I needed the soothing balm of solitude. By the time I left the island I had pretty much healed. And when I write about Layla at her beach campsite and changing her future to include Zach in it, she’s feeling a lot better too.