April and Kevin in Kuna Yala, the northeast coast of Panamá

Monday, September 17, 2007


If you’ve never played the Myst problem solving computer game, I recommend it. The puzzles and mysteries are interesting, the graphics aren’t bad (of course, it is 10+ years old now) and best of all, you’ll get an idea of our work here on the island. Unlike most other popular computer games, the objective is to wander around and learn new things, and best of all, you don’t die in Myst. It is initially an empty world, full of beautiful scenery, with strange and wonderful things waiting to be discovered; over time, you receive messages that guide your explorations as you solve mysteries and eventually the game.

We don’t generally receive cryptic messages through the space-time continuum (although checking the cell phone every two to three days to see what messages have been left sometimes feels close), but the path finding, discovering new places, listening to noises, and solving mysteries is very similar.

For example, the other day, April took a path off the main trail up a steep hill to visit a house; we knew the family, but hadn’t yet visited their house, and wanted to pay a courtesy call. From their yard, she suddenly spotted another house on the next hill over, behind a stretch of trail we’d passed numerous times, thought we knew, and where we’d never seen a side path. Aha, a mystery to solve, a new path to find, and a new family to talk to. By following some side trails, and then smaller, almost hidden paths, we eventually found our way up to that house, and the oldest woman on the island (86 years old, and until about 10 years ago, hauled water up the hill from the creek every day).

When returning to the island the last time, from the boat we spotted a house overlooking the water, on a point of land behind the school where we didn’t know anybody lived, so we were curious to find the house and talk to the owner. It turned out the house was sold last year and nobody knows who the new owner is or how to contact them. But we did manage to find the path to the house, hidden in tall grass between the school fence and a rice field, after discovering several other houses on other paths nearby. And we really liked this owner-less house. It has four rooms, a porch, and a great view, and just needs doors, a shower, a latrine, and water. While we were sitting there enjoying solitude, the view and contemplating the options of living there, a neighbor walked through and told us of a back path to the house (okay, so that part was kind of Myst-like, with a sudden information presentation). So the next day we returned via that back path, and were surprised to hear music coming from the house. There were three guys clearing the yard, apparently because the owner was coming that weekend. What sweet coincidence, and another clue towards solving the mystery of the ownerless house. (Although she didn’t show up that weekend.)

There are about 130 adults on the island in about 75 houses, of which we think we’ve visited 60+. We were luckily given a list of all the registered voters from the last election (May 2004), thanks to my guide. However, the names are in order by the equivalent of Social Security Number, so we’ve been working the puzzles of geographical community on the island, spouses, parents / children, and relatives. The relationships are actually a bit easier than it would be in the US, because naming convention here is [Given Name] [Father’s Last Name] [Mother’s Last Name]. So José Abrego Madrid is the son of Hector Abrego Campos and Cecilia Madrid Apericio. But given the small number of families on the island, there are a lot of relatives.

Besides spotting hidden paths and places and solving mysteries, there is one more Myst-like aspect of the island. When you play Myst, you definitely need to turn on your computer speakers, because the background noises can provide subtle hints to where you are and what you’re doing (especially in the sequel games). One of the main sounds I recall from the game is the sounds lapping water and bird calls, and we definitely have those most places we go on the island. The mysterious sounds can lead you to points of interest; for instance, the Music House, as we called it, hidden from the main trail by a hill of thick brush, coconuts, and palm trees, but audible every time we passed. We finally found the path to it in the backyard of the neighbor’s house.

Thinking about our community “research” as solving a mystery over the course of our first several months (and possibly entire two years: we’ve heard rumors of trails that cross the center of the island and a house located in there, but we’re leaving that exploration for the dry season) makes the lengthy walks and hidden frustrations just a bit more enjoyable. What new sight may be around that next bend that we haven’t seen before, or what new answer might we find from a totally unexpected source?

Will we know everything about our own real-life Myst in just two years? Doubtful. But playing the game can be a lot quicker, so have fun.

No comments: