Written by Fidgit
You know that feeling, when you are wracked by uncertainty, so you put your blinders on and double down? Invest your energies into re-working the narrative, convincing yourself it could to work?
“It’ll be fine. This is fine. This is what I want. It will work. I’ll make it work.” You ignore your gut, telling yourself, “this is perseverance. This is courage.”
Now with the benefit of hindsight, I see that line of thinking colored my personal journey in January and February. These were the weeks leading up to and upon our return to Panama. I was uncertain and terrified of that uncertainty. And everything else was coming together so well. I felt so loved and supported by my tribe, gear was pouring in, affirmations, side projects and creativity. Everything was flowing: gear, friends, family, creativity, mailings, purpose. I didn’t want to allow something as petty as a little gnawing in my gut and buzzing in my brain ruin it all . . . so I pressed forward even harder.
Never mind that I felt an uncertainty around a hollowness around a heaviness in my gut. That I could not sleep. That I was grumpy with Bixby T. Dog. That I woke up crying at 2 am because I had been unable to find a travel bag large enough to fit 2 piece kayak paddles (resolution: a golf bag!). Some of the signs could not be ignored but still, in that miraculous human fashion, I remained in denial. Before departure my best friend asked whether I might be depressed, but I maintained I was just irritable from inactivity.
Things I do know how to do: plan, outline, adapt, communicate.
Things I do not know how to do: sea kayak.
I have done a handful of water-based month long journeys in places like Montana and Peru. A few multi-day kayak journeys in places like the Virgin Islands, Colorado, and Argentina. Based on this, and having successfully gotten all three of us (Neon, Richard, and I) to Bocas del Toro, Panama WITH boats, I clung to a supreme confidence and hurled myself at the logistics, expecting Richard was prepared to handle all practicalities of teaching skills and was reviewing my work on creating routes.
As it turns out, the logistics of the upcoming border crossing turned into a huge ordeal and the Panamanian bureaucrats again went about the business of being duplicitous barriers to progress.
Also, my expectations of acquiring the necessary skills were to prove unrealistic. We did a couple practice paddles around the islands, began to adjust the boats to our liking, and 4 days later and fully resupplied, we set out from Bocas and enjoyed a lovely paddle up the coast of the island, protected in the bay, before turning off into the first of many seaside channels along this coast, dug to accommodate small boats such as the native kayukos.
It was delightful. The array of birds, trees, wooden homes on platforms. Locals pausing in their work of slash and burning their fields to take pictures as we paddled past. In a matter of hours we were off the beaten track, I congratulated myself. This, I enjoy. Oh how full my myself and grand ideas I was.
As Neon and I paddled our boats into the banks of the canal, Richard endeavored to advise us on how to go straight but to little avail. We were also preoccupied with the idea of crocodiles in the water so I, of course, had to inspect every drifting branch or submerged palm frond.
I was taken with my reveries.
“The paddle leash is to kayaking what trekking poles are to hiking. At first you might not use it, but once you do, then it becomes a fixture.”
“These Trak boats are to kayaks what push-button horses are to riding.”
“The coconut has replaced bananas, which replaced potatoes, which replaced quinoa, which replaced rice, which replaced red meat as the staple of the local diet.” I ran through my memories of foods across South America, which of course made me hungry which was met with Richard informing us that on a typical day we should be prepared to eat while on the move. What, no hour long lunch break to nosh and talk about our feelings?!
Then, it was hot. We took our third break of the day on what ended up to be a dock which was fully in the sun. As we loaded back up, Richard reiterated that usually we should expect to eat lunch in the boat and that it should take about 30 seconds. He then asked us if we wanted to go fast.
We did not.
I was really rather enjoying myself. “Well, you are going to need to know how to go fast.” He explained the logic that going twice the pace equals out in energy expended because you are paddling for half the time – something I’ve heard in long distance backpacking. So I attempted to appease him by rushing my boat into the banks of the canal quickly rather than bumping them slowly, which did, in fact, double the rate at which I became frustrated. Neon did much the same.
In this way, we ended up at the Changuinola river mouth by mid-afternoon and set up our camp on a high sand bar between the canal and the sea, to the roar of crashing waves. A local fisherman stood a few feet off the bank of the beach, up to his chest in water. Casting a fishing line he had wrapped around a plastic bottle. We decided to rouse at some ungodly hour the next morning.
It was exciting, I told myself.
On my 33rd birthday I will return to the sea of my childhood.
It would be fine. This is fine.
We woke in darkness and couldn’t see jack but could certainly hear that the waters were . . . let’s call it, not calm, but Richard assured us these were, in fact, small waves. We dawdled in packing, waiting for the first rays of light so we could get a better idea of what we were up against. Would the winds which come with dawn be blowing out to sea or in from sea? This would apparently affect the size of the waves. With little to no preparation and, for me at least, heightened anxiety by the confusion of waves, Richard helped Neon and I get our boats into the water, and we paddled around in the small waves just inside the larger break. I could not discern a pattern, but, supposedly, it had one. All I knew was that sometimes there were big waves of high volume at the back, sometimes there were many smaller waves crashing in various directions at the front.
“It’s all about timing,” Richard explained, “you have to power through.” We then launched helter skelter into the break, made it through the first few waves before Neon and I began flipping and wet-exiting (a wet exit is when you pull your spray skirt off and swim out of your boat instead of rolling yourself over with your paddle. It means a lot more trouble and work than executing a roll) because we did not know how to roll.
Richard paddled back and forth with determination, righting us, helping us pump out our boats, trying to brace us as we bobbed around in the thick of it. At one point I decided maybe I could just swim past the surf tugging my boat along behind. I’ve no way to communicate the utter chaos and eerie calmness of being so completely overpowered.
After something between a few minutes and a couple eons, we limped back to shore, exhausted just trying to pull our boats up past where the waves reached. The combing on my boat had broken, and I felt battered. We opted to make camp a whopping .5 km from where we had started. I did the math. At this rate we would make it to Belize in about 4000 days.
We set up our shelters, and then very little or nothing happened for the rest of the day. I languished. Neither of my companions had so much as acknowledged that it was my birthday. I lay, sweating, sad, defeated, and sandy in my tiny space. In a bout of mercy one of the gusts of wind blew in cell phone reception long enough for my to have a few minute WhatsApp conversation with my best friend who wished me happy birthday; we commiserated that grown-up birthdays suck, then one of my guylines snapped and my tent collapsed, and I had to go hop about in the hot sand and try to set it back up.
That afternoon at least Richard said happy birthday which boosted my spirits. That afternoon I expressed to Neon my sadness about feeling disregarded. That evening she pushed a birthday card at me and walked away. She had thought of it, she just hadn’t taken action. Now I felt like an a-hole on top of being sad.
We decided we would try again the next morning if conditions were favorable and if not, we would head back to Bocas. Again, and in hindsight, I wish we had used this time sitting there staring at the surf and with empty boats to actually practice but such did not occur to any of us at the time.
In the end, it was one of the two harshest reality-checks/most disappointing birthdays of my lifetime. The other was in a blizzard in Montana when I had to strap on snow shoes and march three miles to the Big House and demand a hug from Gay.
The next day, we paddled back to the islands.
For this month’s “Pay it Forward” we were pleased to contribute a portion of the Patreon support we receive toward Girls Education International. A group who focus on empowering young women around the world to pursue education.