The road from Pedasí to Playa Venao runs through cattle country. It's a well paved, winding two lanes mostly traversed by farm trucks and the occasional bus to Tonosí. The drive takes forty minutes, maybe a little longer if you're delayed by one of the small herds of cattle that also use the route. A few vaqueros will be riding alongside, calm astride feisty horses. At your approach they will coax and prod the grudging cows, which will make room for you to pass with only an inch or two to spare.
As it rises and descends through the steep hills of Los Santos, the road provides occasional glimpses of the ocean to the south, a ribbon of blue on the horizon. Many of the hills have long since been deforested to provide grazing pasture; otherwise they are covered in thick and tangled tropical brush. The combination lends a roughly sculpted texture to the terrain. Since it's the rainy season, everything is lush—for once the word verdant truly applies. The skies are grey but shifting—spells of sunlight interchange with flash showers without notice. Sometimes you can drive from a patch of sun into one of rain while still seeing more sun on the other side.
The fences that line the fields are simple constructions. Their closely spaced posts (almost adequate barriers in their own right) support four taut strands of barbed wire. These posts are distinctively natural, often crooked, knotty lengths of branch cut from local forests, other times actual small, living trees. The vegetation here grows so fast that keeping it at bay is a constant battle and this strikes me as an especially novel solution.
It's just after dawn. We're up this early to surf, not sightsee, but we all appreciate the remote, bucolic setting. Tough old farmhands sit along the road, the brims of their Panama hats turned up at the front, their sheathed machetes hanging from their sides by twine cords as they await their rides to work. They watch impassively as our shiny, silver, rental SUV flies past, two longboards strapped to the roof. We scream gringo, but there's not a whole lot to be done about that if we want to surf.
I'm traveling with my oldest friend, Will Hasler. Our two passengers are Antonio and Eric, who comprise the only other tourists staying in Pedasí (population 2100). Antonio is on an extended surfing vacation; Eric is on an even longer haul and wandering more or less indefinitely across the continent. They're both stretching every penny, which in Central America can take you far. Until now they've been relying upon the twice-daily bus to Tonosí to reach the beach. Will and I are on a mere ten-day trip, a mini Endless Summer sort of deal, and we need to cram in as much as we can. For us the car is essential, for them an incredible luxury. This only makes us even more inclined to share it.
Inside the truck, the tip of Antonio's surfboard protrudes across the back seat, forcing him to scrunch up and tilt his head awkwardly. His discomfort becomes even more comical when we hit a pothole and half of his cup of coffee spills onto his lap.
"Oww! Dude. That sucks."
He rubs his newly-shaven head self-consciously, the way people do after dramatic haircuts.
"Man I feel weird."
Will and I never saw him with long hair so we don't appreciate the transformation.
"Damn, I hope it's better out there than yesterday," he adds.
Yesterday stunk all right. An unusually strong onshore wind left the waves blown out and pointless to surf. Still novices, Will and I tried anyway but only managed to flail around a lot. The sport requires patience but you have to learn this the hard way.
I'm driving, and when I check the rearview mirror, Eric is visible in the left corner. He doesn't surf, just likes the beach vibe. So far he's roamed for one year and eight months straight. He's dropped out completely, hasn't been back to Boston once. With his scruffy beard, Castroesque military cap and threadbare clothes he's far more inconspicuous than the rest of us. But you can tell this lifestyle has worn him down too. He's glad for the company, glad to swap stories and shoot the shit. He starts recounting his experiences working on a coffee plantation for a spell and that passes the time until we arrive at the beach.
"Shit, it looks pretty blown out again," observes Antonio with a sigh. "I was afraid of this."
I bring the SUV to a stop in a patch of dirt in front of the open-air restaurant that represents the beach's only facilities. Little more than a long concrete porch covered with a corrugated metal roof, it offers beer, soda and a few basic dishes. Occasionally local workers will stop by for a quick meal, sometimes even arriving on horseback. They keep to themselves. I scan the beach, a half-mile crescent of black sand facing the open Pacific. Waves roll steadily in. Some days they get pretty big—too much for chumps like me and Will. But it's a beach break with a sandy bottom, so it's forgiving. I can see what Antonio's talking about—the waves are capped with lots of froth and closing out fast. The only other structures in view are a ramshackle trio of tiny one-room cabanas. Painted a garish turquoise, you can rent them for twelve bucks a night, but they're total dumps. Most people prefer to stay in Pedasí, which has several very clean and cheap hotels. Ours is run by a genial, wizened old woman who doesn't speak a word of English and uses a tattered, college-ruled notebook as her guest ledger.
Currently the cabanas are unoccupied. On weekends rowdy groups of Panamanians drive down from Chitré to surf and party, but other days it's blissfully quiet. A top-notch break all to yourself—that's every surfer's paradise. That's what getting way off the beaten path can offer. If you're lucky.
"I'll go see if Jack is up," declares Antonio.
He marches off down the beach towards a small tent that's flapping in the stiffening breeze. Will and I get more coffee and discuss the conditions.
A few minutes later, Antonio returns with Jack, whom we met briefly the night before. The youngest of everyone present, twenty-one at most, he's also the best and most hardcore surfer. A Kiwi, he's been doing it since he was ten.
"Morning," he greets us, sleepy eyed.
The five of us settle into chairs on the porch. The sky remains a pale grey. Other than Eric, who's in jeans, we sport the same standard uniform of board shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops.
A lazy hour passes.
In dialogue laden with almost the entire repertoire of surfer lingo—dude, stoked, gnarly, thrashed, etc.—Antonio and Jack display a knowledge of the ocean and weather patterns that would impress the saltiest fisherman. They know the tides, the seasonal swell, the currents and the shorelines. Jack gets to talking about how he's going to meander down to Chile to try and catch the really serious waves.
"Dude, I just don't know if you'll get the best swell that time of year," Antonio conjectures. His knowledge of Chile is based entirely on reading, but he sounds convincing. "But even then it gets big down there. Like double and triple overheads. Personally, I doubt I could hack it. Water is damn cold too."
Jack just grins. "Yeah mate, that sounds good, real good. That's why I bought a killer three hundred dollar wetsuit!"
"Nice. Which brand?"
Antonio still has a life and a job—or at least college—back in the States. Jack is a surfer. That's how he defines himself. That's what he lives to do. He's just spent half a year slaving on a farm in the UK to save up for this trip. He's hoping to eek out eight months on this nest egg. All he has with him are his board, his wetsuit and a duffel bag. (The digs aren't his—he's tentsitting for some Panamanians who are due back on the weekend).
"I did see what looked like a decent break at that town beach in Pedasí," Antonio remarks. "Not great but you know, O.K."
"What's that one called again?" asks Jack.
I break out my guidebook and look it up.
"Playa El Toro. You really think it's worth checking out?"
"Well, the wind wouldn't be onshore there..."
"True, but it's probably fairly protected too," notes Jack. "I can't imagine it gets much swell."
"I'm game to go take a look," interjects Will. Sitting around killing time is not his forte.
"Cool. Let's do it."
Suddenly we are in motion. Hope is renewed; to El Toro we go. And no doubt we would go to much greater lengths yet if it meant a chance to catch a wave. Eric comes along for the fun of it. Jack does too, but he's skeptical and leaves his board.
Five minutes later we are all back on the road to Pedasí.
On the outskirts of town we pass an unassuming bodega off a side street. It's no different than the rest that dot the country's roads—single story, concrete, faded paint, dusty racks of dry goods. And like nearly every convenience store in Panama, it's run by Chinese immigrants. Brought over as semi-slave labor for the building of the canal, the Chinese population seems, at least to an outsider, eerily confined to this one trade. Or maybe they are quite content with their little monopoly.
As we go past, Will notices a pair of pool tables tucked into the open-air lean-to that extends from one side of the store. The space is ramshackle and a little forbidding. If Pedasí were another kind of town you could imagine the local thugs hanging out there.
"We can always shoot some pool if we don't find waves," Will says.
Everyone laughs, although I'm not sure how seriously they're taking the proposition. A rutted dirt road brings us to the beach, whose waters are depressingly calm, just as Jack predicted. Apart from two local kids hanging out under a copse of low, gnarled trees, there isn't a soul in sight. Unwilling to climb back into the SUV quite yet, we linger around for a bit. The Pacific stretches off seemingly forever.
"It was worth a try," Antonio says, a touch apologetically.
Everyone concurs. No blame here—at least we scoped a new beach. But neither is anyone ready to resume our yo-yo route between Pedasí and Venao.
"Pool?" suggests Jack.
What before seemed like a passing fancy is now, in it's unlikelihood, strangely compelling. Everyone is for it and we park across the street from the bodega in what may or may not be someone's yard. The two teenage kids loitering about next door assure us it's cool.
When we inquire about the tables inside the store, the dour middle-aged Chinese woman perched behind the counter reacts with bemusement. Apparently this is an uncommon request. Antonio presses in Spanish. Reluctantly, she accedes and shouts something to the back. A few seconds later, a shy young girl in pigtails appears holding two cues, a rack, and a few balls. They turn out to be the cue ball and the 13, 14 and 15.
"Guess we'll have to make do," chuckles Jack.
Everyone takes a moment to buy snacks and drinks and then we head for the tables.
"Holy shit! A beer, a candy bar and a banana only cost me forty cents!" marvels Will.
"Wow, that's just crazy dude," agrees Antonio. "Forty cents! That's fucking sick."
"It's like when you see prices from the Fifties up on the wall in some diner and imagine them still being real, " I add. "Except here they are."
Only one of the tables turns out to be playable. The felt surface of the other has been ripped to shreds, the pockets are mangled and the rails are covered with a mysterious white powder. Somebody jokes about it being toxic; somebody else suggests cocaine.
"Yeah dude, I dare you to snort it."
The floor is worn, uneven concrete. Scattered heaps of junk and discarded PVC piping occupy the back half. Most of the bodega wall is covered by a big red Atlas beer logo, a ubiquitous sight down here. The real kicker, though, the defining aesthetic feature, is the bathroom. A bright powder blue swinging door leads to the Ladies. Crooked and nearly off its hinges, it's surmounted by an enormous, downward red arrow with the word Damas printed in a bold white font. The entrance to the Men's is so negligible as to be laughable: one half of a tiny, saloon style door in the same blue stuck permanently open. Beyond lies a small, rectangular chamber. A rusty metal trough runs around its stained tile walls. Above this threshold another, similar oversized arrow reads: Orinal.
Across the street the two kids start to blast American hip-hop, starting with some Eminem. Nobody's sure if it's in our honor or what. Either way, it's totally incongruous. A light rain resumes, the soft patter blending into the background of the music.
"Why don't we do a mini version of 9-Ball?" I propose. "The 15 can simply act as the 9 and so on. Call it Panama 3-Ball."
The name earns me a few laughs. Nobody objects, but Eric and Antonio don't know how to play 9-Ball. I quickly recap the rules. One of the cues is missing a tip, so we all share the other. The first break isn't pretty. And surprise, the table is slanted. But who can complain?
Right away we eliminate table scratches as being too easy. Panama 3-Ball continues to evolve from there. I'm not at the table when it's suggested that the person racking ought to be able to arrange the rack in any shape or position they want. This leads to all sorts of wacky setups—straight rows of three pinned to the back rail, inverted triangles, diagonals and zigzags. I'm a pretty good pool player, but not taking the games seriously and not very on either. The games are quick and friendly. Nobody holds the table for very long until Jack goes on an extended streak.
Crack! He breaks another rack. The balls scatter. Nothing drops and Eric steps up to take his turn. The rest of us are gathered around the ruined table.
"Can you imagine this place in its heyday? I bet it was the hottest spot in town," remarks Antonio.
"The only spot in town, you mean."
A strong sense of prior inhabitation does pervade, of drunken boasts, loud salsa and money changing hands. If only you could strain hard enough, you feel you might catch a whisper of these dissipating traces of humanity, touch these vague emanations of time past.
Jack wins again. I don't want to but I brave the Orinal. There are too many locals around outside for another option to be advisable. Inside it's dank and reeks of piss. A scummy layer of water rests in the trough. I stand as far back as I can to avoid splatter.
"Yo, be careful in there!" jokes Will.
Somebody else makes a crack I don't catch.
When I come out, our game has reached what will be its final incarnation. An empty can of Atlas beer has been placed, standing, on the original spot for the rack. It represents a seventh pocket. All a ball has to do is touch it to be counted as sunk. And wherever it moves or tips it remains in effect.
This variation renews our interest for a while, until an unusually tall local saunters in without warning. He doesn't say a word, just surveys the room with a squinting, ornery look. Then he beelines for the Orinal. From there he watches us play through the gap in the wall while he takes a leak. We share sidelong glances and try not to laugh. It's weird. Really weird. Will snaps a surreptitious photo. I'm convinced the guy notices and is going to take offense. But he leaves as abruptly as he entered.
"You know what's amazing?" I turn and say to Will. "How acutely conscious I am of being exactly right here in time and space. It's like a pure, pinpoint of existence. I almost never feel like that, which is a real fucking tragedy."
Jack wins yet another one. By sudden, mutual agreement, that's it. Time to leave. The rain has lifted, the air is dense and sultry, the beach beckons.
"We really might have a shot now," muses Antonio.
"The wind did shift around this time yesterday," adds Jack. "O.K., let's go surfing!"
Will needs no convincing. We pile back into the SUV and ply that familiar blacktop to Venao. Panama 3-Ball remains the topic of conversation most of the way. Eric conjectures that maybe it's the national sport and we unintentionally reinvented it. I joke that wouldn't it be funny if, twenty years from now, one of us were to walk into a bar and encounter some total strangers engaged in a game.
"I invented Panama 3-Ball, you'd say, but of course they wouldn't believe you..."
The beach greets us with the same overcast skies but, lo and behold, the waves have improved. Conditions aren't great but are good enough. Boards are hastily retrieved, leashes strapped on and in no time we are paddling out into the warm, equatorial water. Soon I reach the breaking surf and as it crashes and froths around me, all my focus and energy are directed towards a single goal: reaching the far side. Once I'm there, I can turn my board around and proceed to harness this elemental force. But first I have to earn the right, which is only fair. There are no chairlifts here.
Copyright © D. W. Young 2006. Title graphic courtesy of D. W. Young 2006.