The temperature is 85 degrees and the humidity is high, but fresh Pacific trade winds keep conditions comfortable on the island which has been sheltering the deposed Shah of Iran.
Reza Mohammed Pahlavi's newest home is small -- 2 1/2 miles wide, 3 miles long -- but it's packed with beauty. There are 13 public beaches, complete with white sand, clear blue water and no crowds. It doesn't rain much here, even when Panama City, 35 miles away, is being drenched by tropical storms. As a result, it always seems like fall on Contadora, with dead dead leaves under foot in the woods.
It is a paradise. There's a hotel on the island, and it offers modern, air-conditioned rooms, plus a casino, two restaurants, two bars -- one next to a swimming pool with seats in the pool. There is live entertainment. There are bus and boat tours of the island and you can rent cars, mopeds, snorkels, and fishing and water sports gear.
You can play tennis, golf, volleyball, and there are two duty-free shops and a small grocery store which also carries souvenirs. People come from all over the world to vacation or convention, and it is said that more foreigners are here than Panamanians. And, of course, there's the shah.
He is something of a celebrity on Contadora. He walks frequently in public, he smiles and waves at passersby, he dines in the hotel's restaurants in between solitary times at the house of Gabriel Lewis Galindo, who bought the island in 1969 and began development of the island a few years ago.
Vacationing in Panama, my wife, Aida, and I decided recently to join other tourists and visit Contadora, to see how the shah's presence had changed it since we were there last.
We expected some kind of trouble because rumors had it that reporters couldn't get to the island. We heard that one reporter sneaked onto Contadora, but was sent back when discovered by the shah's bodyguards. But others told us there was no problem going there, so we decided to find out for ourselves. It didn't take long to see that it wasn't as easy as last year, that some of the rules had changed.
The first sign we had was the warning from an unidentified, sun-glassed official, who upon being informed I worked for a newspaper said if I wanted to see the shah I should forget it, that nobody gets near him without a pass from the presidential office, and then only in a tour bus from the island hotel. He added that any reporter trying to sneak onto the island without proper papers would be disappointed. But having read me my rights, he approved my passage.
But before we boarded the twin-engine plane that would fly us to Contadora, one of the Pearl Islands in the Bay of Panama, a man announced to those waiting that they should not take pictures of the island from the air as we were approaching, nor should they take pictures on the ground near the shah's house, of of the shah himself, unless they wanted their film confiscated or their lenses smashed. That set the tone for our visit.
When we landed, the shah's presence once again intruded, in the form of three armed guards who in a business-like and not unfriendly manner searched everyone's luggage. There had been no advance warning of this, but no one seemed surprised. Although the luggage was searched, people were not, and we saw no electronic metal detectors.
Aside from the policeman, Contadora seemed the same. Within its lush confines are 80 private homes, few roads, few cars, and so many places to do things that it never seems crowded, even though the hotel of 150 rooms and 60 cabanas is almost always full. The only diffrences we noticed were some new Datsuns and some men walking around the hotel grounds carrying walkie talkies.
Last year there had been a morning and afternoon bus tour of the island, and it had passed in front of the house where we knew the shah was staying. Certain we wouldn't get nearly as far this time, we wondered whether the tour bus, which now circled the island twice each afternoon, would provide the tour without getting too near the shah.
We soon found out. As we were approaching the house in the open air, canopy-topped vehicle, our tour guide told us that we were nearing the shah, and warned us against taking any pictures. As we drove slowly by we saw about half a dozen men, mostly in civilian clothes, carrying machine guns and rifles in front of the driveway.
Farther down the road was another driveway, also guarded, leading to the house were Ellsworth Bunker had stayed when in Panama negotiating the Panama Canal treaties. Past that was what looked like a back entrance to the adjoining properties, also guarded, and a soldier was walking along the road carrying a rifle. As we came to a bend in the road, on our left we saw a Panama Air Force helicopter in a clearing, with a soldier lying inside taking a catnap.
Meanwhile, the tour guide was telling us about the manmade lake on our left, and then around another curve pointed out the Executive Beach, one of the prettiest on the island. I swung up the camera, took a shot, and then she told me that I shouldn't take pictures there.
I was surprised. Not anywhere? I asked. But this beach was below the shah's house, and within seconds there was a man at the bus demanding my roll of film. Aida told the man I hadn't known that I wasn't to take pictures there, and the guide confirmed that. The man let us go.
Later, when we were waiting for the plane to bring us back to Panama City, we thought we had seen all we would see of the shah's effect on Contadora. But sitting in the air-conditioned mini-tower, I looked up to see the deposed shah walking by on the road just outside the door. We watched as he strolled along, looking quite fit, accompanied by eight bodyguards and his Great Dane, and followed by two of the Datsuns we had seen earlier. He walked out across the 9-hole golf course, and for awhile was lost from our sight.
About 15 minutes later, we saw three Datsuns coming toward us from the hotel, and we went out on the road to watch them go by. I was looking for him in the middle car, but he was behind the wheel of the first. He smiled and waved at us as he drove past.
It seemed as though he would have been quite willing to stop and sign autographs. It was obvious that he felt quite safe on Contadora, where all incoming plane passengers were being checked and all boats were greeted by the Panamanian National Guard before getting near the shore.