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Happiness: no mirror, electricity or running water

January 16, 2011

The island: where roughing it is the ulitmate luxury

Over Christmas and New Year, a large wedge was driven through my everyday life and its concerns about work, men, keeping up with the Jones’s, men, and – sorry, did I mention men? – men. And, of course, the burgeoning existential anxiety created by social networking and the internet addiction we all – to some degree – suffer. So, lots of concerns though thankfully of a privileged variety. Still, all this creates a claustrophobic mental atmosphere – while noting and worrying how addicted one is to email and the constant checking of websites and chats, and social networking fora – ones simultaneously checks and checks and checks. As for men, well, the last few posts demonstrate a very sombre, displeased state of affairs towards the end of the year.

And then, my mind still crawling with the bugs of  (privileged) modern urban life, I found myself in Panama with my parents and friend Tom. Mostly known for the scary dictator Noriega, the Canal and tax-free escapism (drugs and money laundering too), Panama is not nearly known enough for its ridiculous tropical beauty and delicious pineapples. It’s good, of course, that nobody knows, because it meant that we felt like we were the only ones.

On the island that we camped for 6 days, near the Costa Rican border, we really were the only ones. Nobody- except for the adorable, 60 year old cowboy that looks after the, well, cows- knows about it. And this is where the wedge driven into the humming, uneasy London consciousness went deep. Four of us, an open shack for shelter, two tents and a latrine sheltered by a hairy-looking thatched roof. Massive views: us and the sea, lots of birds (the book The Birds of Costa Rica was a constant with us), a volcano’s peak peeping out at the clearest moments, and dolphins (yes, dolphins) leaping in sixes past our viewpoint in the very water we’d swum in that morning. Once, a huge iguana mounted a fruit tree (I forget which fruit) in front of our settlement, and spent a long time glaring at us.

Before heading to the island, we had to collect supplies. Mind and appetite still zinging from London and its Christmas excesses, I tried to influence the purchase of provisions towards more wine, more pies. I was swatted down: tins of tuna, pineapples, a few vegetables and a bottle of Bacardi formed the bulk of our party of four’s culinary experience for the next week.

After the first night spent sleeping on a mysteriously appearing downward slope and several cowpats, I wondered how the next 5 days would go. I got my father to shift the tent (naturally too much for me) and settled into the routine of early morning swimming, reading (War and Peace, thank you), preparing, eating and washing up our meals (one night we had tinned salmon with a bit of banana, a green pepper and a starfruit. Delicious), sunbathing, fighting off the bugs at dusk and falling asleep at 9:30-10. After three days I felt a caramel-like calm creep over me. I didn’t want to check any email or news, and refused to turn on my phone even to take pictures, in case a disruptive text appeared. There’s a fresh spring on the island, across a field and up a muddy slope, and this is where you wash by pouring bucketfuls over yourself, and it’s also where you get drinking water. No soap. No mirror. Just sun, swimming, bugbites, headlamps, conversation, a pillow made of mosquito net and a shirt, crackerpacks to accompany the odds and ends we found on our plates at night. I’ve never been happier.

A week after my return, the brain is starting to fizz again, to come alive in a cantankerous way. London looks drab and dirty. It’s hard not to go to parties, meet men and wonder about them and replay your interactions. If only I could find a way to replicate that bubble-like Eden of disconnectivity, asociality and simplicity. But, without the isolation, hammock and iguanas, I fear it wouldn’t work.

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