Panama, 1994, The Jungle by Mishele Maron

*Featured Artwork by Mali Fischer

Panama, 1994

There was only one answer to the question: Would you like a second helping of iguana? On our last night in Panama, I found myself with a beer in hand, slapping mosquitoes at my ankles, and watching as our hosts cooked Iguana on a stick over the bonfire.  Helena, the wife, had prepared iguana two ways for us, and in addition to the iguana kebab, she had a large, black sooty pot of stewing iguana which simmered near the fire, tendrils of oily steam curling acridly towards me. Our host Dieter stood over the bonfire, his eyes wild, his toothless mouth open, the rough lined skin on his face sagged in scalloped lines. Dieter was skinny to the point of appearing underfed, and when he moved quickly, he looked like a dancing skeleton who chortled.

Dieter and Helena didn’t have a lot, a tent-like structure behind us with net-covered beds and a makeshift kitchen with kerosene stoves, but Dieter always had a cigarette hanging from his dried and chaffed lips. The jungle huddled around us like the gigantic walls of a fern-sewn tent. Crickets chirped. Crabs crawled their silent way atop the rocks, their spidery bodies glistening in the moonlight. The ocean lapped at the shore behind. Timeless sat on the hook, the light in her mast a gigantic candle in an otherwise dark sky.

We, the five crew on the yacht Timeless, in addition to Dieter and his wife, were the only humans for miles and miles. The owners of the yacht left a day or so earlier, after a ten-day cruise through the San Blas islands. My captain, Phil, had ordered us here to Dieter’s hut after Dieter had shown such hospitality taking Phil iguana hunting. Phil promised us it would be a party, a good time. Phil, a guy’s guy at the best of times, particularly adored these Robinson Crusoe types. The toothless recluses who lived off the land, like real men, Phil said, as though the civilized versions who used stuff like toothpaste and pillows were inauthentic. Phil, ordinarily fastidious, wasn’t looking at infected mosquito bites growing into pustules on Dieter’s arms. Did he not see Dieter’s endless head scratching, which pointed toward lice or crabs, or some other creature with invisible mouths?  Phil seemed to have forgotten how bad Dieter smelled and how the bulging of the man’s eyes made him appear schizophrenic.

Dieter’s rifle sat propped against a palm tree. A too-skinny dog with stick legs sat hunched on the ground, saliva ribboning from his mouth. The dog sat with his legs beneath him, as though prepared to launch if Dieter gave the order. Normally, I loved dogs but earlier that day Phil had told a story about the dog. During their iguana hunt through the jungle, the dog had successfully cornered a large iguana and when Dieter had narrowed in, he’d sliced off the iguana’s head with his large scythe, and pitched the head towards the dog who’d done quick work of chomping up his reward, his mouth flooded with blood as he masticated the iguana head in a few quick bites. Even Phil with the iron stomach had been grossed out.

We’d encountered Helena and Dieter the day before and Helena was now recounting how they’d come to live here, build this camp, plant their orchards of fruit trees, and construct their lives in this piece of jungle. Annie, Phil’s girlfriend, and our yacht’s one stewardess, and I sat on logs a few steps away leaning in to hear Helena’s soft voice. They’d come over from Germany, she claimed, to Central America on their little wooden yacht, cruising along the coast of Central America, stopping for a day or a week or two in towns where Dieter’s carpentry skills could earn them a wage to continue cruising. This off-the-grid island existence was their retirement and, in contrast to the self-congratulatory Dieter, Helena’s wide-set eyes had a hollowed-out quality.

“I don’t want to lose my teeth,” she said, her voice whispery but urgent as though tooth loss was imminent. Annie, whose reassurance could be counted upon in all times and circumstances, crooned back, “Well of course you don’t. That would be a terrible thing.” But these words carried a false sense of neutrality. Of course Annie, a woman following her man across ocean current end, understood; if her partner needed to live in a jungle, like Robinson Crusoe, she’d live sans dentistry. And grocery stores, and mail carriers, and friends and mental health specialists. I caught myself glancing at Helena’s gums.

“It tastes like chicken,” said Phil. He meant the iguana tasted that way. He looked at me. “She’s American,” he said, as though this amused him, and he tipped his beer back into his mouth.

Phil, South African, seemed to expect a response from me, and I tried to think of one. Humor seemed appropriate—everyone likes a funny girl. Looking at the two of them standing side-by-side, their hair as disheveled as the jungle backdrop, nothing funny came to me.

Dieter smacked his lips and waved his stick towards a hut made from wire and the trunks of palm trees.

“You like it, Cook?” said Dieter, looking at me. He kept glancing at me and then away, hiking his shorts on his thin hips.

“It’s good meat,” Dieter said, displaying a set of grey teeth. “How do I get my own young American cook?”

It was a good question, and in the long days leading up to this compulsory night, I’d been wondering this myself. How had this happened to me?  How had I arrived here, to this place, to this jungle, to the yacht where my life fell beneath the jurisdiction of this captain?  Lately, I’d been tracing the days, weeks, and the months back to what amounted to years now and miles of ocean.  Thousands of miles crossed aboard this yacht, and other yachts like this one as though my life had begun a watery dream from which I didn’t wake.  Maybe I didn’t want to wake.

In 1979 my father, who I adored, climbed into his dirt-smeared Toyota to begin the first leg of his journey north, a journey which led him up the Yukon Highway, to Alaska, his residence for the next thirty years. At the age of nine, I’d watched from the wooden porch he’d built, but lost in the divorce, as he’d slammed the car door, marking his exit. Where was he going?   To find a life he could live, he’d told us, as though life near us was unlivable.

My father’s departure enriched the ways I perceived myself.  As though I as a cake with a long list of ingredients left, would be the secret key ingredient. It was as if this bad ingredient caused a sudden and ever-increasingly depth with shadows and nuances in me. If my father disappeared from my world to join another world somewhere else some aspect of me too, disappeared with him, into the slipstream of the mysterious. As a young girl it was an imaginary Neverland and even as I became a teen and adult, and knew better, I continued searching for a place to go someday in order to feel whole.

As a teenager standing at the edge of the Salish Sea, I thought to myself the ocean was deep enough to hold everything, and I recognized I meant myself. As in my entire self. Not the splintered-off self I presented to the world, but a secret, more organic unapologetic self. I decided then, I’d be like my father and leave first. To be left was to be abandoned, ignored, judged unworthy and so many other feelings a young girl would naturally attribute to herself when a father resigns.

As a girl coming-of-age in the late 1980’s, I was told I could go anywhere and be anything I wanted to be, but of course, no one could tell me how to do this, or where to go to kickstart the process because it was a fairy tale, of course. In school, the church, and the greater community, men ran the large and small shows and the virgin women bore the babies and tended to the home and tempers of the men inside of them. And the fear of that fate circling back to grab me created a tactile, simmering momentum. Studying abroad, joining my first crew at the age of twenty, and sharing four hundred square feet and miles of ocean with my makeshift crew families ever since kept the momentum moving. And kept me safe from home and the fate that surely awaited me there.

The simple answer to Dieter’s question as to how you could get your own young American cook was simple, you just had to be the guy who hires her.

Contributors:

Mishele Maron and I'm a writer living in Seattle, Washington. I I'm a formally trained French chef who explores in words all of the rich intersections between life and food. This is an excerpt from a recently completed manuscript about my three years traveling around the world as a cook aboard cruising yachts.

Mali Fischer is an illustrator living in Portland, OR. She grew up on a small island in Washington and later moved to Vancouver BC, where she attended Emily Carr University of Art & Design. Since graduating in 2014, Mali has illustrated for artists, brands, and individuals alike using her signature comforting style. She is known for emotional, therapeutic scenes.

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