(Recently, Jason and I visited Bocas Del Toro, Panama. This is part 4 in a 5-part series examining just what is a local and what is a tourist at one of the best spots on the old “Gringo Trail”).
Local or Tourist? Case Study #3: Anna
The first day we in Bocas we made the five minute walk into the town of Bocas del Toro to get supplies.
There is a main square in Bocas, and it’s surrounded by shops, stores, restaurants, hostels, and bike rental places. There is all manner of restaurants in Bocas, many of which are run by expats, be they American, European, Austalian, or Cuban. There’s Indian , Sushi, and Mexican restaurants, there’s even an American sports bar where the Panamanian bar tender and I bonded over our love for the Red Sox and our hatred for Yankee fans, who, according to him, are everywhere in Panama City. That being said, it still has a small town feel, and when we went there the first time there was an African Heritage festival taking place, with a stage set up on the main road that blocked traffic. At one point during the week, there was some sort of dancing competition among different groups of teenage boys dressed in devil costumes. They jumped through the crowd, looking alternatively scary, devious, and silly, and when it was their turn on stage they just went crazy dancing in a completely unchoreographed and unrehearsed show of adolescent energy. It was pretty great.
Walking through Bocas you will often be approached by some burnt-out twenty something travelers and given a tiny flier for a local bar. You will be told that this is the best bar tonight, with the best party. Eventually you realize that there are only a few bars, and they generally each have a night. But at first I was wary of the information contained on the five or so fliers I had collected during the walk through town, so after Jason and I had bought supplies (water and rum) I approached a pretty blonde girl who had neither the dreads nor the sunken face of a road weary backpacker, and asked her if she knew where the place to go was tonight. She was smoking a cigarette and sitting on a piece of cardboard on the steps to the grocery store.
She made a few suggestions, and she was very friendly, asking us immediately where we were from, how long we were staying, etc. She was German, but she told us that she lived in Bocas, and had for a few years. She admitted that although she came to the bars on the main Island, the place to really check out was a reggae bar on Bastiamentos that she bartended at on Mondays. After chatting for a while we went back to the hostel, got drunk with the Swedes, and hit the town.
We went out many nights in Bocas, and we met a lot of people from all over the world, including an amazing amount of Americans from California and Colorado. We befriended one American from California who grilled Jason about the organization and profit margins of his online businesses. Later that night, I saw the Californian buying cocaine off of a local dealer at the Iguana bar. I also saw a Panamanian cop approach him from behind. I ran up to my fellow American and whispered “cop behind you! Put it away!” in his ear. He quickly ran to the bathroom where he got rid of his newly purchased commodity. When he got out, the cop grilled him, and he feigned not speaking Spanish while displaying his emptied pockets.
We continued to get drunk that night, and he bought me drinks, thanking me for keeping him out of a Panamanian prison. I don’t think he would’ve ended up there, considering every few minutes I was offered cocaine at the bars here, and that I’m pretty sure a small bribe would’ve got him out of any trouble. But I let him buy me drinks. Thank you, “Locked up Abroad.”
The Iguana Bar, an open air, converted boat house looking building on the ocean with a big dance floor and an open patio that hangs over the water, is the best bar in town. There are a few others, including one connected to a hostel that advertised an 80’s night. We went and heard only mid-nineties hip hop. I drunkenly observed to a German brunette that I had been taking shots with that nothing we had heard was 80’s music. I suggested that maybe it’s the music that people born in the eighties listened to when they were kids. This, I observed as Tupac growled over the speakers, was what I heard when I was a kid. She sweetly replied that she didn’t know, having been born in 1993. That was the moment that I realized I am too old to hang out in hostel bars.
But of course that didn’t stop me from continuing to do it. There is a great place called Aqua Lounge on the same Island as Bibi’s and you can see it standing on the boat docks on the main island. On Saturday and Wednesday nights, the water taxis travel back and forth full of drunk and horny travelers and locals alike. Often times people swim back at the end of the night. There is a big in-door space at Aqua Lounge, which becomes a big dance floor. There are multiple outdoor decks, a few of which have holes in them that you can jump into and swim, or just dip your toes into while you drink. There’s also a swing for jumping into the water. The place is connected to a fairly dirty looking hostel. But if you are in full backpacker party mode, this place is where you want to be.
I kept seeing Anna around. I would say hi, and she would do the same. One night, shortly after we arrived, we went to a large boat that had been converted into a bar. It sat close to the Iguana bar, and it felt like something Mark Twain would’ve worked on as a young man. Anna was there. I sat down next to her and she asked me how I was enjoying my time here, etc. We talked about how she ended up here, which was a variation on a story I heard a lot in Bocas, that she had been traveling through with friends and decided to stay. She met a boy in there somewhere as well, although the chronology regarding the decision to stay and meeting the boy seemed deliberately fuzzy. She was friendly and warm. I liked her. Eventually some friends caught up with her and Jason and I left.
Next Monday we went to Bastiamentos to see this reggae bar. We had actually been told about it by a few different people by then. We got off the water taxi and started walking through the town on Bastiamentos which feels a world apart from the touristy and presumably fire code compliant buildings on Bocas. We walked along a dirt road, which occasionally was bridged by pieces of plywood, toward the reggae bar. On the walk we realized we were walking in front of two fairly attractive girls. We started talking to them, and the better looking one, an American, seemed a bit dismissive. She made it very clear that she lived here, and was not a tourist. As in, she was a local. Her friend, an Argentinean, was a Couchsurfer and was more friendly. We passed houses on stilts, and one bar that was blaring fifties-style Latin music at very high volume at eleven at night, even though the place was surrounded by homes just a few feet away.
As we turned off the main walkway (dirt path) Jason broke his sandal. The girls gave a polite display of pity, and poor Jason had to walk around the rest of the night barefoot, holding a busted sandal.
We turned down the path and it led to a beachside open area with a bar and a hut with DJ underneath it. There was a fire and a hammock by the beach. The music was loud, most of it was more reggaeton than reggae, although some was more classic reggae sounding (except for the rapping over top of it). It would have been a great place for a party. It’s just that there was nobody there.
The American girl had warned us on the way in that this place was real hit or miss. It was clearly a miss that night. She had also told us that her roommate bartended here. I asked her if it was Anna. She said that her roommate was Anna and referred to her as a Dutch girl.
“Oh, I thought she said she was German,” I said.
“Oh maybe,” the girl replied. “I thought she said Dutch. I’m not sure.”
There were a few Rasta looking guys there. We got drinks and sat and listened to the music. We chatted with the girls for a minute or two, but it was pretty clear the American girl saw us as tourists, which of course we were. It’s just that she wasn’t exactly a local. I decided I didn’t really like her all that much. Anna was bartending and got us drinks. She was friendly as always, but admitted that this was pretty dead. She recommended places to stay on Bastiamentos, and said this was the island I should be at if I wanted to get away from the touristy shit. I looked around at the fifteen people there, fourteen of which were dudes. I wasn’t sure I wanted to get away from the touristy shit if this was the alternative.
Jason and I stayed for awhile, then decided we had made enough of an effort and left. We walked back down to the docks and realized there was next no chance we were going to be able to hail a water taxi. It was late and dark and there was nobody around. The girls had said that they had scheduled a taxi back at 1. It was 12:30. We sat waiting. One local guy passed by and asked if we needed a ride. We told him yes, and he said his cousin a few houses down had a boat. He would see if he was awake. He never came back.
There was a house blasting music a hundred feet or so from the docks. Curious, we walked over to see if it was a bar or club. But it seemed to be a house, and there was no obvious way to walk to it. As we turned to walk back to the dock, we saw a body lying in the street. I walked up to it and saw that it was a middle aged man with a big belly that had wormed its way out one of those tigh,t 70’s style polyester short-sleeved polo shirts. The man was snoring. I thought about waking him up, and give him a gentle shake, but he didn’t stir at all. He was right in the main walkway. He was clearly the island drunk. I also realized that the guy who passed us and offered to talk to his cousin must have walked right over him. I decided to let him sleep, as if there was any other option.
The girls came back shortly thereafter, the American one arm in arm with a dreadlocked surf instructor I had met at Iguana bar a few days before. Obviously, she was here for the locals. Good for her. We all took the boat home, all of us tired from the sleepy ocean side party, watching as the thunderless lightning lit up the night sky from the Pacific as we carved a wake along the surface of the still Atlantic.