Shopping for paradise

Imagine owning your own dollop of sand, with palm trees and tropical blossoms, surrounded by aquamarine water. But at what price?

By Carol Lloyd
Published November 13, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

"It's like my own little fantasy island," the mustachioed man yammered. "We've got some snorkeling planned, then we'll check out the sea turtles, then you know, hang out on the boat, have a gourmet lunch, swim, enjoy the beauty, eat some mangos, drink a beer, then we head over to see the property. We'll be there just in time for sunset, and man is it beautiful, palm trees, you name it. I'm so happy to show you guys this place. We're going to have a total blast. It's like my own little fantasy island."

A tanned American couple in their early 40s sat nearby on the restaurant porch. They listened, they smiled. The mustachioed man -- who might have been Tom Selleck's stocky cousin -- talked loudly on the other side of the railing on the dirt street of Bocas del Toro, the main town on Panama's premiere tropical archipelago. Behind him a skinny, ravaged black man pushed a wheelbarrow full of coconuts and called out his wares in a sing-song chant. "Coconut just a quarter, coconut just a quarter." Other locals rode by on bicycles swerving potholes gracefully, balancing children on the handlebars and fenders. Others wandered by on foot dressed in threadbare shorts and loose dresses calling out to one another by name.

"Hey," I whispered to my husband, Hank, as the mustachioed man stepped away from the railing to confer with a cinnamon-skinned gentleman on a bicycle. "That's him. That's Marty."

This was the man we had been waiting for, the American businessman who could make our whole trip worthwhile. But we weren't ready to meet him -- not quite yet anyway. As he began speaking to another American couple who had just arrived at the restaurant, we turned to the first couple, offering them some insect repellant for the swarming chiggers.

"Are you here to see Isla Solarte?" I asked.

"Yes," the man answered with a proud smile. "Are you with the group, too?"

"No, but we read about it on the Internet," Hank replied.

"That's Marty -- he's the one organizing the whole thing," the man said. "Do you know Marty? I can introduce you."

"No, no," I interrupted. "Please -- we came here to check it out but we don't want the hard sell."

"Yeah," Hank added. "I spoke to Marty on the phone and he talked my ear off. How did you find out about it?"

"Actually," the man answered, casting a glance at the woman, "Marty's my brother."

We smiled. "Oh, that's great," I stuttered, suddenly noticing the man's identical mustache. "Of course, I see the family resemblance."

We continued to chat amiably as if we hadn't just suggested his brother was a shyster selling tropical swampland. That's not what we believed anyway. We had snuck onto the private island the day before -- and so far, everything Marty had said was true. It was paradise.

And that's all we wanted. Our own little slice of paradise. That's all.

As with most vacations, this one began long before any plane was boarded. It began with a figment, an image that somewhere else would deliver something home could not. But this trip was never about all the yearnings that fuel most journeys to unfamiliar places -- rest, adventure, luxury -- it was borne of the fantasy of acquisition.

We became fixated on Panama's tropical archipelago rather arbitrarily. An acquaintance mentioned that Panama still had undiscovered Caribbean islands. Then a cover story in the travel section of the New York Times painted Panama as less touristed than Costa Rica, yet just as beautiful, just as chock full of squawking wild parrots and howler monkeys, but cheaper with better water, better roads and more diverse culture. The newly published Lonely Planet guide added that while Costa Rica was mostly mestizo, Panama could boast many active native tribes (some of whom controlled large swaths of state park) as well as an English- and Creole-speaking black West Indian population known for their music and sense of humor.

Then I got pregnant. Everything seemed to fit together like in those hokey movies I can't stand to watch but wouldn't mind living. With the small seed of the future planted in my belly, my interest in Panama took on a furtive intensity. We weren't telling anyone about the baby but we could talk about that coral-encrusted archipelago floating in the warm Caribbean sea, a place where slow island rhythms still moved the trees and the daily lives of the black and Latino locals, where kindness, simplicity and an unpretentious good life was available to all through the sheer generosity of nature.

Making a family makes one slightly delusional -- or at least it did us. Rapt with our own sense of the future and its shimmering potentiality, we were a testimonial waiting to happen. Generic faith glowed in our marbly eyes. Miracles happened. People had babies. People had summer homes in faraway lands.

An Internet search revealed that Panama had been struck by a real estate boom even more feverish than the one that had hit our home, the San Francisco Bay Area. While national newspapers and evening TV magazines gushed about Silicon Valley's real estate inflation of 100 percent in the past five years, some of Panama's island properties had multiplied over five-fold in the same period.

For someone raised in coastal California, where people drop several hundred thousand dollars just to get a two-inch square glimpse of gray cold ocean between other buildings, the prices in Panama seemed too surreal to subject to too much analysis, and too obscene to pass up. It was still possible to buy a shack on a hot sandy beach studded with coconut trees and spend less than the cost of a new Toyota. Though I can't afford any new car, the idea of buying a wee slice of sun-drenched beauty overwhelmed my under-exercised financial lobe. This could be an investment, I reasoned, or a place to share with an extended community of friends and family, or a place in which to raise a child away from the complexities of American culture. Fantasies of escape co-mingled with greed, fear and altruism -- and burst out in bright relief in the form of sales pitches aimed at friends, family and other possible co-investors.

I've read the books on Central America's unfortunate history of being successively plundered by Europeans or European-blooded North Americans; in college I even team-taught a class on it. But maybe the self-punishing cynicism thing had gone too far; maybe annexing paradise for a bit of private pleasure didn't necessarily mean uprooting a native culture or an endangered plant. Wouldn't it be better, for example, for me to buy a little shack and make friends with my Latino and native neighbors than to allow Hyatt Regency to bulldoze its way to an exclusive golf resort?

I had never contemplated buying property in another country before. Now it was the only thing I could think of. Even my dear husband, Hank, a man who parts with each dollar as if it is an intimate friend, caught the fever. We spent hours on the Internet perusing Caribbean real estate Web sites -- Panama indeed offered the best values aside from Nicaragua, which was shackled with devastating poverty, dirty water and a high rate of violent crime. It was in cyberspace that we found the property opportunity that would soothe both our aging lefty guilt and our increasingly rapacious appetite for pineapples, sea turtles, warm oceans and quiet.

Isla Solarte billed itself as an eco-resort. Only a mile off the coast of the main island of Isla Colon, it promised sensitivity to the natural environs in commune with people who cared about such issues. The developers had bought several hundred acres of pristine jungle island and made plans for a small no-car community of thatched-roof houses on poles to protect the foliage.

The best part was that if we bought now, we could take advantage of the low, low pre-construction prices. We e-mailed the developer, Sheppard Johnson, at his Sacramento number. He put us in touch with Marty, his point man for the island, who just happened to be planning a trip there during our vacation. On the phone Marty offered to meet us at the airport in Panama City and arrange for all our accommodations and travel to the island.

Not knowing our itinerary, we declined the offer. But by the time we reached the islands, we were eager to see how our fantasies stacked up.

"Be careful, whatever you do," said Dorothy Claasen, the Canadian owner of Cocomo-by-the-Beach as she cleared our breakfast dishes. A fly buzzed around the little bottle of homemade passion fruit syrup. We looked at her quizzically. "Just be careful," she repeated, wearily. I shooed away the fly. Hank picked at his sixth heart-shaped biscuit. We'd come late to breakfast and eaten everything she offered, peppering her with nosey questions about property values and land grabs and the changing demographics of the islands. Now overstaying our welcome, we stared onto the improbably blue sea and continued our interrogation.

"Be careful of what?"

Dorothy, a restrained woman with rounded edges and graying yellow hair, had made paradise her home but now she seemed tired of it all. Her husband was not well, was already in Canada undergoing testing and she'd been left there to continue running the bed-and-breakfast by herself until the place was sold: $219,000 for a four-room B&B and a house.

When pressed for details about other places to purchase, she pursed her lips and issued enigmatic warnings. "There's buying land and then there's buying land." She exhaled and shook her head. "The situations I've seen ..."

"You mean con artists?" I said, waving the fly away.

"People don't always get what they think they're getting." She watched the fly climb the syrup bottle. Hank swatted it.

"Do you know Marty from Isla Solarte?"

"Yes, I know Marty ... I'll just say you should make sure you buy land with a title."

Hank snickered. "What idiots buy land without a title?"

I pushed down the cork of the bottle and it ended up inside, floating in the golden puddle at the bottom. The fly crawled in and Dorothy watched.

She leveled her gaze at us briefly -- exhaustion seemed to bring her to her feet. "I really should get back."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

"Marty is a great, very nice man." Harold, a handsome, insouciant young black guy was carrying us in his motor-powered dugout across the waters to the nearby Isla Bastimientos to visit Red Frog Beach and Salt Creek, a Guaymi Indian village.

"Dorothy Claassen?"

"She is very great too."

So far Harold had offered a rousing endorsement of every person we had mentioned. Yet his approach seemed no less scrupulously cautious than Dorothy's. On the way back from dipping in a 92-degree ocean and pathetically passing out candy and pens in exchange for pictures posed with deadly serious native children, we pulled into a tiny wooden dock leading to a beach dotted with baby palms and goofy little signs like "Marty's Marina" and "Sheppard's Sleepy Cove."

The little knoll still had a few fruit trees but much of it had been cleared in preparation for the houses to come. Twisty paths crisscrossed the hillside impaled with little stakes delineating the building plots. Bread fruit weighed down the bows of trees; a flock of wild parrots screamed across the flawless sky; goats grazed on brilliant grasses. The place was unbelievably perfect, a living cliche. One could almost expect to see Gilligan and Mary Ann scramble out of the brush with piña coladas in hand.

It was at breakfast the next day that we overheard Marty describing "his fantasy island." But given Dolores' caveats, we were suddenly in no rush to buy. Hoping to do some comparative shopping, we hopped a boat to Isla Carneros, a wee island just spitting distance from Colon.

After taking down phone numbers from the surprisingly numerous hand-painted real estate signs, we happened upon a house under construction where a light-skinned, blue-eyed Afro-Caribbean carpenter was working. He introduced us to the owner, a salty American retiree called Capt. Tom Williams, who had bought a patch of flooded ocean-side property and proceeded to turn it into a piece of prime white sand beach property.

"How did you manage that?" I asked.

"Illegally," Williams crowed. "Wetlands are supposedly protected wilderness." His carpenter leaned on a saw horse and watched his boss with bemusement but no sign of disapproval.

"Did they fine you?"

"Naw." He rapped a wall of lacquered hard wood. "Knock on teak."

We read a name on our scribbled list and asked if he was good person to buy real estate from.

Williams and his carpenter looked at one another and broke into ribald laughter. Tears formed in the carpenter's eyes. "Stay away from him!" the Captain inveighed with some relish. "He says he's a lawyer, he says he owns property, but he's just a piece of work."

Launching into an exhaustive description of the land laws in Panama, the Captain explained that titles were hard to come by on island property, because legally now the government was no longer selling island property to individuals. But one could obtain the "right to possess," which was almost as good as a title. "That's what I've got here," he concluded, sweeping his hand across his idyllic outpost.

"Have you heard of Isla Solarte?" I asked.

The men exchanged glances with conspiratorial chagrin. "I really can't say anything about that," the Captain sighed. "Sheppard and Marty's mad at me. They say I been ruining all their deals."

"Do they have the right to possess?"

"He probably does, but I don't think they have the right to subdivide it and share the right with the buyers."

"So what exactly are they selling?"

"Well." He chewed an imaginary straw. "I believe what they're selling is the 'right to pick fruit.'"

A half hour later we were on the Captain's motorboat headed out to check out an island that he just happened to be selling for a scant $20,000 cash.

"All you have to do is clear-cut those mangroves and bring in some sand," he explained, pointing to a furry green mound in the distance. "Right now the whole island's surrounded by the damn weeds, but you get a team of Indians in there. They charge less than $2 a day." He shook his head admiringly. "They can do anything."

We calculated figures as we waded though the knee-deep black sludge surrounding the one-acre desert island. It had been used by a native tribe for over 30 years, who, according to the Captain, had sold him their "right to cultivate" -- which I guessed was more than the picking fruit license but less than full-fledged possession. He then went through much legal turmoil to obtain the right to possess. Other gradations in property ownership included squatters' rights, which permitted people to use, improve upon and eventually claim unused lands if they inhabited the lands for more than 15 years. As Captain Williams attempted to explain the process of buying land -- hiring a lawyer from Panama City and negotiating with both the local Indian population and various government bureaucracies -- we gazed around us in wonder.

The island was crawling with edible tropicana. Miniature pineapples sprung from sword-leafed spirals, mangos rotted lusciously on the ground. Coconut palms waved high over almond, lemon, orange and tangerine trees. A freshwater spring pond tossed back sunlight and the sea -- that impossible filigree of lazuli and popsicle -- surrounded everything.

All this for $20,000! All we had to do was buy it, inhabit it, hire an army of Indians at slave wages and ignore federal environmental laws to remove a few acres of mangrove! That's all.

We told the Captain we were very, very interested.

"Well, I'm not really sure I want to sell ... I'll call you if I'm serious," Williams answered, suddenly coy. Perhaps he'd decided he'd named too cheap a price. Or was he the real con artist?

Later that night in a little hipster bar of neo-socialist college students, the conversation revolved around a familiar subject: land valuation. When we asked a drunken surfer about buying property on the island, he leaned close and blasted us with lime-tinged tequila breath. "I was raised here and I'm telling you -- get a title or forget it. Don't get land without a title! Don't listen to anyone who says anything about derecho de posesio. If you spend six months not inhabiting the property, anyone can move in and in a Panamanian court of law the judge will tell you: 'Too bad!! It's not yours anymore.'"

The surfers stood around us and nodded. The tale of the hapless expat in search of paradise seemed to be one they knew well.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

The next morning back at our breakfast spot, a young woman in a floral skirt overheard us talking. "I know all about Isla Solarte," she offered. "I met Marty two years ago and we had drinks and dinner but now he pretends he doesn't know me."

I asked her if the evening had been a romantic mishap.

"Oh no," she laughed. "He's avoiding me because I'm an environmental anthropologist. He knows what I think of his so-called eco-development -- first they clear-cut old-growth rain forest, now they're paying government fines." She held out her hand. "Linda Storm. They've been breaking environmental laws from the beginning. Two years ago Marty talked about wanting to create something truly environmental. But now it's all about the money."

That afternoon as I sat on a deck overlooking a stormy ocean, I watched a dot coming closer. There were barracuda sharks out there and stinging jellyfish and this tiny splashing speck seemed to be asking for disaster. Gradually I discerned a man swimming with powerful, slow strokes. Twenty minutes later a silver-haired gent in his mid-50s pulled himself out at the porch dock of the hostel next door. Who was this old guy -- barely breathing hard, greeting a group of beer drinkers with charming immodesty? "I do it every day when I'm here. It's so beautiful, I can't help myself." Could that be the notorious Sheppard -- the man behind the little eco-development? His silver-haired journey across ocean revealed a robust appreciation of just what it meant to inhabit paradise. Colonialist, visionary, con artist blurred together in my mind -- heroic figures from the American pantheon all became one.

There was laughter. Someone was telling a story and I recognized Marty's voice. "Well, people like that won't really fit into our community," he pronounced loudly. "They're just not our type."

I wondered who "people like that" might be. Environmentalists? People who actually want to buy more than the right to pick fruit? Then it flashed on me: Maybe he had heard about our snide comments to his brother and he meant people like us. Yes, there were the players and there were the ones that watched and sneered from the sidelines, afraid of really making paradise their home.

The next day I confirmed my guess about Sheppard Johnson at the tiny Bocas airport with the brand new airstrip -- mysteriously subsidized by the American military. Riding in on his bike, he came to see off two couples who had bought into the development. He unfurled blueprints and chatted regulations. After he left, one of the men confided that he and his wife didn't have a title because Marty and Sheppard were still "working out the paperwork" with the government. "We're going to be the first ones to break ground, though," he added proudly. "We're sort of the guinea pigs."

Since then I've heard a rumor that the phrase "buying land in Panama" is another way of saying "getting robbed." But despite all those wide-eyed buyers who discover they've bought only the right to pick a coconut, there's no question who finally gets robbed in expat land grabs. Today Panamanian paradise has a bargain basement sales tag slapped across its face. Indians and locals are selling their land and within the confines of the current economy, they're getting rich. But this is only a passing phase in an exorable process of Maui-morphosis. Only individuals like me can turn back. The islands and their inhabitants don't have that choice.

We did not buy land. Nor did we regret it. We indulged a fantasy of purchaseable paradise as far as it could go and then left it for other less tentative, less morally torn dreamers to tender. But the gradient shades of property ownership in Panama have left me dwelling on the meaning of land with the same compulsion I once reserved only for weird literary theories. With its squatters' rights, rights to possession, agriculture and even rights to pick fruit, Bocas del Torro seems more and more like a real estate siren -- attracting foreigners and capturing them in a new paradigm of possession where everything is suddenly up for debate.

Back home in San Francisco, where the housing market has become desperate and combative, I face the same dilemmas. Since I'm the owner of a tenancy in common, an arrangement that allows people who can't afford a single family home to share the title of a duplex or apartment house and thereby "buy" a flat, I don't need to buy an island to exploit Indians; I am already the enemy. TIC's generally remove rental property from the market, leading to the characterization of TIC owners as an encroaching yuppie invasion on working-class neighborhoods. Although we never evicted anyone, the El Salvadorean peasant family who lives below me will probably be evicted now that my TIC partner has decided to sell the flat downstairs.

It's so easy feeling smug about not indulging in the fantasy of foreign real estate even as we indulge in another. It's easy to feel that people like Sheppard Johnson have stepped across the line from traveler to tourist to colonialist. I call him at his home outside of Sacramento to hear from his own ears just how closely he relates to Bocas's first colonizer: Christopher Columbus.

Sounding sympathetic and guileless, Shappard Johnson explains that once the government allows them to, they will be selling titled property. In the meantime, he says, buyers do have the "right to possess." They did incur a fine, which he blamed on his allowing Panamanians to clear the property in his absence. "Fining," he said, was "very subjective." Despite such bureaucratic delays, the colony is finally underway -- they have broken ground for one house and they hold permits for five more.

When I ask about any ethical quandaries he may have had, he speaks of "making a difference," of compost toilets, developing scholarships and schools, coral protection zones, rain forest awareness and outreaching to indigenous communities. Then he tells me a story about a five-hour plane ride home from Bocas with an ecology professor, who had been there studying the rain forest.

"Finally, I said to him, 'There's a question I have to ask you and I'm scared to death of your answer. I'm developing a community of 500 houses on a rain-forest island. Am I being irresponsible?' And the professor said, 'You're not doing any damage at all. If you compare what you're doing to what is happening around the world, you're helping the community, with jobs, capital infusion, technology and teaching people to appreciate the rain forest.'" He paused. "Of course, that was music to my ears."

I get off the phone abruptly. I am feeling precariously premature contractions. As I begin timing the surges of my belly in my beige cubicle in a brick high-rise at the sirening heart of a city, Sheppard's words echo in my head. Rain forest awareness, yes! Coral reefs, yes! Compost toilets. Yes.

The breed of people who yearn to lay their heads down on "Gilligan's Island" and call it their own are not so different as I want to believe. They simply act on dreams that few of us really finally take seriously. Politically, it may be a questionable dream, but it springs from the same tender utopian place inside us that makes us think we can create a place where our children -- or even ourselves -- can experience natural beauty and another way to live. That's all.

Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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