What I learnt behind this gate………

Two and a half years in Toronto and the clock was ticking….we had to make the very most of every opportunity available to us. We had done whatever we could to explore as much as possible. We didn’t buy any ‘stuff’,  and instead spent every penny on events and travel. “You have seen more of our country than we have, and we’ve lived here all our lives” was a common conversation amongst our new Canadian friends. It was true, we had not come up for air, and would have visited nine out of the 10 Provinces in the world’s second largest country by the time our adventure was up; as well as a couple of trips to the States. March break, the last school holiday before we flew home to the UK via the East Coast, was a final chance to do something different while we were this side of the Pond.

Traditionally, Torontonians head to the sun in March break as the city is still in the grip of serious Winter weather. Cuba, Mexico, Jamaica, Costa Rica were all on the list of popular destinations, and very appealing when a wind chill factor of –25 dictates your itinerary if you stay at home. However, money was tight and as I was searching Panama kept coming up as a cheaper alternative. The Zika virus had reached neighbouring Colombia and so the price of flights had plummeted, with no specifically identified risk. I searched around for accommodation and found what sounded like paradise. A cabana in the rainforest, on a private surf beach, with freshly caught fish and home grown vegetables prepared for you each evening. It was on the Pacific Coast, a six hour drive from the airport – another reason it was so cheap, but that only added to the adventure. The kids were 12 and 14 now – we were up for this.

After an exciting first night in Panama City, named the Miami of Central America, we headed South. En-route we stopped  off to take in the Panama Canal, an awesome feat of engineering, timing it just right to watch an enormous container ship patiently work her way through. We waved at the sailors who stood on deck waving back, happy to see new and friendly faces. I thought of my own father as a young man in the merchant navy, who would have been in exactly their shoes many years before, and I waved harder. After waving them off, we went on our way, sat nav behaving itself despite the increasingly remote landscape. “What are the arrival instructions?” my husband asked, having left all the planning to me, a ‘stay at home mom’ for the duration of our stay in Toronto. I had failed to become the domestic goddess of my fantasies, but travel arrangements I had nailed. He flashed me a look as I read out the e-mail “Wait at a rusty gate for a black car to arrive. Bring only cash. American Dollars”.

Just before arriving we had lost the satellite and telephone signal, and so we drove up and down the rough road for a while. Panama has no shortage of rusty gates. Eventually we saw a beaten up black Land Rover heading up a dust track. Beatrix, who I had been in regular e-mail exchanges with, bounced out of the driver seat beaming at us.”Welcome to Panama” she yelled, and we all breathed a sigh of relief. Twenty minutes and five more rusty, padlocked gates later, and we arrived at our destination. “Why is security so tight?” I asked when we got out of the car. Beatriz looked puzzled. “Oh the gates aren’t for security” she smiled “it is just how the farmers have divided up the land”. “Phew” I thought. Two men were filleting and hosing an enormous fish on a marble slate at the entrance to a lush green garden, bursting with vibrant flowers the colour of jewels. It could not have been more simple or more beautiful. We were shown to our Cabana –  a large, cool, white airy space with dark wood furniture and a balcony over looking rain forest – a hammock swinging gently in the soft breeze.  “The fishermen are just cleaning their catch for our evening meal” she said. See you for dinner in about an hour?” Wow.

After unpacking and exploring the garden a little we headed down to the main building – a wooden house with a large veranda set with two tables. Darkness was beginning to fall but you could hear the waves crashing onto the beach just below. The second Cabana was not taken that week and so we were to be the only guests. Dinner was simple, and simply delicious – the fish as fresh as it could possibly be. We met Pedro, the owner and he told us the story of how he had moved to the area from the Basque region as a young man, drawn by the best surf beaches in the world. He would spend his days surfing and his nights in a hammock strung between two trees. He picked up building work here and there and eventually saved enough to buy the plot of land. Over a number of years he had built the house and then the Cabanas. He had married and had a son, now 8 who was back in Europe with his grandmother for Easter.  On our way back to the Cabana we met Matilda, the spider monkey (we were advised to keep our distance as she seemed friendlier that she actually was) and Luna, the black cat with a white crescent moon, who was friendlier than she actually seemed, and spent the night on my daughter’s bed.

In the morning we woke to the sounds of the rain forest and headed down for a breakfast of fresh bread, eggs and fruit and plenty of coffee. Pedro had gone fishing for the day but Mai, his wife, took care of us and Beatrix said she would give the children a surf lesson later in the afternoon. The view from the veranda was stunning – a huge expanse of beach all to ourselves. We decided to head down there straight after breakfast, and spend the morning exploring. We borrowed a couple of body boards from under the house and walked down the steps straight onto the sand. The children decided they wanted to go into the water, and my husband followed after them. I found a place to lay our towels and settled to take it all in. I couldn’t use my usual excuse, that I was minding the bags, for not going in the water as there was not a soul in sight. Perhaps I would just have a paddle. I walked to the waters edge feeling just about as happy as I had ever felt.

Like a dimmer switch I remember delight fading first into annoyance, then into frustration, then into worry and then into total panic. They were too far out – did they even know how far out they were? I started to shout and wave but I couldn’t hear what they were saying – and they were disappearing further out to sea. I ran into the shallows, now screaming at the top of my voice “come back you are too far out”. My son, who didn’t have a body board, was a little closer than his sister and father, who seemed to have been swept further away. I ran as close as I could towards him without going out of my depth. Seeing how close I was seemed to help him make progress against the waves and he swam towards me. He disappeared under the surf a couple of times but then he managed to stand and we ran to the shore together. I looked back and I couldn’t see my husband and daughter – they had disappeared altogeher beyond the swell of the waves.

“Stay here” I shouted to him “I’m going to run for help”. “Are they going to die?” he asked. “We are going to do everything in our power to make sure that doesn’t happen, but please don’t go back in the water. They need you on the shore”. I ran as fast as I could back up the beach and to the house. My mind was racing “who can help? We are in the middle of nowhere. How can they possibly survive they are so far out to sea? What was I thinking booking a holiday so far away from civilisation? This is my fault. The black cloud that had shrouded me for a couple of days when I first gave birth was back. It had been right all along. “I was not fit to be a mother and I did not deserve this beautiful child”. Wow, I thought I had kicked that into touch a long time ago.

I also remember thinking “So this is what it’s like, the final moments before the news headline that shocks the nation until they move onto the next page ‘Father and daughter drown on beach holiday in Panama’”. All the while I could hear screaming until I realised it was me. “Please help – they’ve been swept out to sea – please help me.” The house was empty and I was screaming in vain.

In the distance I saw Beatrix – running from our Cabana where she had been cleaning. We ran down to the beach together – taking a short cut I didn’t know about. Mai and the cook were already on the beach having heard my screams and ran down the other way. As the shore came into view I could see my son pulling his sister over some rocks. She was bleeding but standing. My husband was close behind. He collapsed onto the sand utterly exhausted. I ran over to them and burst into tears. It seemed implausible that they had managed to swim back. When my husband caught his breath he told me what had happened. They had gone from a fun splash in the water to suddenly feeling like they were out at sea – the shore looked so far away and I was just a dot on the beach. He had tried to swim, pushing my daughter and her board, but he was making no progress and tiring fast. Each wave would sweep over them, and they would lose the boards, which thankfully were attached to their legs. He knew for certain that they would not make it, and he was willing me to run for help. He also knew that there was probably no help to be found.

He then told me that our daughter, who was just 12, had remained incredibly calm and had tried her hardest to swim back to shore, but could see it was not working. At one point she said “dad let’s swap boards so you are pulling me instead of pushing me – like a tug”. He had said no, insisting that she kept her own board as it was their only hope in the now ferocious and deep water. The risk of not being able to see her must have been terrifying “but dad it will always be attached to me anyway”. He tried, and sure enough he could feel them making progress. Each wave meant starting again, but even so he could feel they were getting closer. Eventually, as a wave washed over them again, his toe hit sand and he was able to give a final push to the shore. Our twelve year old’s cool head and problem solving skills had saved the day. She had saved their lives.

Carrying on with our holiday after that felt very bizarre. We lunged from the trivial, like what to eat for lunch, to the profound, how lucky we were to be alive.  In some ways, the heightened anxiety made the holiday even more vibrant than it already was, and our appreciation for each and every precious moment was acute. A trip to a Coiba Island, and seeing a sloth were magical experiences we will never forget. In other ways we just wanted to get home and get on with life as though the trip had never happened. I felt so guilty for dragging my children so far away for no other reason than a holiday. I felt furious with myself and my quest for adventure and exciting experiences.

I also felt shocked by a core belief, laid bare in my darkest hour. I did not deserve to be a mother and should never have been entrusted with them in the first place. I would frequently disappear into a parallel universe where all three of them had drowned and I was all alone – having got exactly what it seemed I thought I deserved. I guess it was a way of punishing myself when there was no punishment after all. There had been no price to pay for that overwhelming rush of sheer terror – which was hard to make sense of.

We were anxious about the sea, of course, and only ventured back in with Beatrix. She explained about the safest areas and times to swim – things we should have checked before rushing down straight from breakfast. The children had surf lessons and managed to stand – but it felt more like a job they had to do than the fun it was meant to be. They have since had good times in the water but we are very much more cautious, and delighted to be on busy beaches with life guards, and boats near by. We save our empty beaches for winter walks with the dog.

On the plane on the way home, both my husband and I were incredibly emotional – the sheer relief having caught up with us. He passed me headphones telling me to listen to the lyrics of the next song along with a note which read “I keep imagining you lying in bed alone, listening to this while we are out at sea”. It was Kate Bush – The Man with the Child in his Eyes. I can’t listen to it without tears streaming down my face. Back at home, the flashbacks were frequent to begin with, and would catch me off guard. They have settled, and sometimes I even force myself into them so that I can feel the fear rising in my body. I am lucky that I am now in control of them, but I am not quite ready to let them go. They help remind me how incredibly fortunate I am.

The whole experience was a sharp reminder that risk and parenthood go hand in hand. You cannot have one without the other. Luckily both my children were able to save themselves – possibly even because of the many smaller riskes and challenges they have experienced along the way. Who knows what the right balance is – and how preparing your children for the unexpected sometimes means  putting them in danger’s way – and potentially risking everything.

panama beach

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