Backhand Stories: The Creative Writing Blog

It was reasonably late in my life that I discovered there was a name for my fear of crowded places. And more specifically, the term agoraphobia, upon stumbling over it recently in my Spanish-English dictionary, gave validity to what my family had always considered a silly and embarrassingly illogical concern.

Agoraphobia- Fear of crowded, public places like markets (or in my case, beaches).

I was fortunate enough as a child to entertain wild and dreamy ideas when it came to planning holiday vacations. When asked where this year’s Christmas break should be spent with my brother and parents, I’d regularly contemplate the most recent grand prize Bob Barker had given away on The Price Is Right. “How about a relaxing tropical escape to luxurious Graaaaand Cayman?” I’d say, using a cheesy, almost salesy intonation to my voice. Usually no one listened.

Holiday breaks allowed us to see new places and experience new things; a sense of novelty that inspired us to let down our guard and, as a country singer might put it, try ‘n live a little. Honey coated cereals, for example, not permitted otherwise in our home, were allowed in the mornings of vacations via small cardboard packages that limited our Fruit Loop or Apple Jack consumption to a muted sugar high. We rented convertible jeeps that we wouldn’t be caught dead driving in the States, for their poor safety ratings and we stayed in houses with pools (a huge insurance liability back at home). We went out to exceedingly expensive restaurants that would normally be the butt of our jokes and we wore polo shirts and flower prints that were about as unnatural as the suntans we displayed on our legs and necks.

Even as a young child, I enjoyed, in a sophisticated sort of way, using this deviant theme of doing things outside the box, to safeguard my fears. I never liked crowded beaches though I can’t really say why.

To me, the nicest beach in the world meant nothing if there were more than five people on it. It may sound silly, but I always had a tendency to group crowded beaches, no matter their location or quality, together in a list entitled Places I Wouldn’t Be Caught Dead In, accompanied by the likes of Red Lobster and old haunted prison cells. Belize, Phuket, Laguna, Atlantic City: they were all the same to me unless a tsunami was coming and I had the beach to myself.

It was this fear, this anxiety for packed beaches that kept me far inland when we vacationed to coastal regions, but inherently, it also bred a sort of whimsical pursuit: the search or hunt for something secluded and private and rare.

Vacation mornings with the family were spent, often under my governance, searching for private bays and coves. Usually, when we’d come across something that might qualify, I’d discard it as “too windy” or “not white enough” secretly concerned about the fat group of Germans hanging out in the shade. They wore tiny spandex-like bathing suits. I was almost compulsive in my need for privacy and to an extent, my parents took this apprehension into account, before occasionally throwing their sandy novels and beach towels on the floor and saying “enough is enough already!”

Upon coming across a vacation spot we liked (and coincidentally one which had great secluded beaches), my family enjoyed returning the next year for round two, and then three, and sometimes then four. The only issue though, was that I’d see, before my very eyes, various beaches-which I once considered my own-being invaded. Quiet nooks in places like St. Martin or Eleuthra or Maine slowly becoming inhabited by tourists, whom I’d pass with outraged eyes as if to say, we got here first you know.

To an extent, this natural evolution and crowding of my favorite private beaches of the world made me nauseous. But it was with great, almost poetic timing, that Panama came into my life and offered up an entire new gamut of options.

Upon first sight, it was the feeling I imagine an antique collector might enjoy upon walking into an exceptional flea market: a sense of excitement and restlessness: that you want to see everything and go everywhere and you want to do it all at once before anyone else can. I got my first kicks a few years back on the shores of Isla Canas (Los Santos) and San Blas (Kuna Yala), where beaches were about as deserted as my fifth grade piano recitals. I took comfort in looking up and down coastlines and seeing nothing for miles, a kind of panacea for my newly-diagnosed beach agoraphobia.

I relished the opportunity to dig my toes into the warm sands of Santa Clara (Cocle) and Red Frog Beach (Bocas del Toro) with no one around and I have no doubt that the ability to do so has subconsciously kept me in Panama ever since. But like any secret, some chatty folks will eventually spread the word and the very isolation that made them so attractive at the beginning will evaporate like an aerosol room freshener, into thin air.

In reality I can’t really blame them nor can I claim to be the first pioneer as there may very well have been some neurotics before me in this quest. But because Panama is so relatively untouched, there still exist a number of secluded beaches to explore. And for that, the beach hunter in me carries on.

Matt Landau is the founder of The Panama Report. In his off time, Matt enjoys shooting small animals with farmers, exploring Panama’s secluded coasts, and training for triathlons but never actually competing in them.