(Recently, Jason and I visited Bocas Del Toro, Panama. This is part 5 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 #4: Dutch Guy / Sting Ray
We moved around during our time in Bocas Del Toro, hitting up a few different hostels and islands, some more noteworthy than others. The most luxurious place we stayed at was the Buccaneer Resort on Caranero Island, right next to Bibi’s. We had our own bungalow type thing, which was right on the beach. I would wake up in the morning, and walk into the water, and keep walking into the water, and continue to walk, and soon I would be 200 feet out into the ocean and with only my knees submerged. I would then sit down in the clear bathwater of the Atlantic. Then I would go use my free breakfast ticket at Bibi’s and drink my coffee over the water while I considered just what I would do today. The first thing was to grab the communal bottle of palm oil in the restaurant and smother it all over my legs so my exposed skin didn’t become an open air buffet for the tiny little ghost fly things that occupied the beach. Sometimes Jason would wake up in time to join me. Sometimes.
In our bungalow we had wi-fi, and ineffective AC (you know, since it was screened in)so we ended up doing quite a bit of work and getting (sort of) caught up there. This was definitely the Flashpacker part of our trip, as it was a bit more expensive than the hostels, but after getting there it was difficult to leave. It was also a really easy place to lie around. The beach wasn’t anything special at the Buccanneer but it was right there. Underneath our bungalow, the sand was punctured by tiny holes all along the ground. Upon close examination, we realized there were tiny crabs, each with one hilariously large claw they kept in front of them, and a tiny claw, which they were obviously embarrassed of, that they held closer to their bodies. Upon even closer examination, the crabs would all simultaneously retreat into their shells, only to remerge in unison as soon as the observer stepped back within some magically decided upon crab-city perimeter. We lived above the crabs. We were on the beach.
The Buccaneer was run by a very friendly and very chatty Englishwoman of Indian descent or it at least it was while we were there. Some relative ran it regularly, but she was home in England visiting family that week, as was explained to us by our host. (Remember Alex and how I praised him for his efficiency while checking us in? This was the opposite of that). Her husband, a Dutch guy in his thirties, took tourists snorkeling on his boat. It was forty five dollars for three hours. We decided to do it, because that’s a great deal.
Our instructor’s name was….dammit I forgot it. Something very Dutch sounding. He had a heavy accent and he was very precise about meeting him at 1:45 at the beach, which was fifteen feet in front of our bungalow. I assured him we would be there.
We got in his very small motor boat and took off. He told us he was going to bring us to three places, two of which were just places with no special name, which made the third spot, called “the Garden of Eden” all the more enticing. Of course we were going to the Garden of Eden first, since that’s where everything starts.
We tied our boat to a buoy, since, as the instructor explained, this was a place where many boats brought snorkelers to see coral. So the locals had decided to place a buoy tied to a concrete slab at this one spot, so every time a boat parked here it wouldn’t require dropping an anchor into a field of coral. Smart. Our instructor gave us a quick tutorial. Like the surfing tutorial, it was short and pretty self-explanatory. Spit on the inside of the mask (he assured us he watched them after every trip), make sure it’s tight, and once we were in, listen for him tapping against his watch. That was the signal to surface, or look over at him because he had found something cool to show us. (It was implicitly understood that he might also try to make us see something terrifying and dangerous to avoid. This was implicit because he had a huge knife strapped to his leg, which he said he brought “just in case.”)
“The only thing that can really hurt you is a sting ray,” he told us as we sat trying on flippers in his tiny boat. “Just stay away from them. These aren’t the rays you see in the aquarium you can touch. They have very large barbs.”
I don’t get scared easily about the evil and merciless ways nature tries to kill you when you dare put down the remote and try to enter it, but I did once not get further than three feet in the ocean during a childhood visit to Florida because I learned during shark week that attacks can happen in water three feet shallow. So I was set on edge by the sting ray warning. A day earlier we had also met a local on a boat taxi who invited us to his oceanside restaurant. He served us delicious Eel ceviche, and he also told us that the eel had been living in the rocks by the beginning (not the end, like in the in shallows by the land) of the dock. He also described its beak, and told us that they bite and tear, and that anyone struck by one would most likely be dead from blood loss in minutes.
I won’t say I was scared, but these facts about murderous sea monsters living in the shallows were duly noted. They were noted extra duly (I know, that doesn’t make sense. Neither does an eel killing a man with one bite.)
Seeing the choral was amazing, and it made me forget the vicious killing machines that were inevitably going to kill me in that three hour window. I cut through the water effortlessly with the flippers, and the coral was everywhere, as were the schools of fish that swam around us. We swam for an hour at the first location. I tried to learn how to fill my lungs and dive down to inspect the sea cucumbers and crabs on the ocean floor, but I could never make it last very long.
After a while, a certain peacefulness came over me, and I was quite happy to float around looking at fish forever. Quite frankly, I felt stoned. (How has this not become a stoner thing to do? Is it, and I just don’t know about it?)
After an hour (which felt like twenty minutes) we moved to the next site, which was near the island where a season of survivor was filmed.
The second site was as beautiful as the first, but we were out in deeper water. The coral was more brilliantly colored, with strong purple and green shafts that looked like a neon flute that would be played at a Blue Man Group show (You see how good this would be on drugs? )
I also realized that there were jellyfish floating around us, small ones, but regardless of size, I would’ve really liked to have known beforehand whether terror or indifference was the appropriate response to those weird little living bits of goo. Some of them are poisonous, after all, and that is a thought that can’t be avoided when you accidentally swim into one. course, they turned out to be harmless.
I was a little nervous when after ten minutes we surfaced and our instructor looked at our boat, and seemed to realize he had parked too far away from the spot where we were snorkeling.
“Stay here,” he said. “I’m going to bring the boat closer. Just keep your head up and make yourself visible to boats.”
I did not go under water until he brought the boat back.
The third site was in the shallows off an island that had a mansion and a private lagoon. This mansion sat on a lushly manicured neon green lawn that had been carved out of steep jungle slopes. But just a few hundred feet along the overgrown jungle shore was a spot that our guide insisted no one else knew about.
“I don’t bring everyone here, you know,” he said. “But I think you guys are ready.”
Excepting the shameless and totally unearned flattery (we managed to float well!) we listened as he explained that this was actually going to be a little trickier.
“This is only a few feet deep,” he said. “And I won’t be going in with you this time. So here is what you have to do. You must stay flat on the surface. You can’t put your feet down. You can’t touch the coral or it will die. You must stay perfectly flat and still.”
He demonstrated with his hand. Flat. I had not gone more than five minutes without needing to adjust my goggles and clear my snorkel, which I did while treading water vertically. This was going to be a challenge.
I climbed in the water by pushing out from the boat as hard as I could to start floating. It was only about three feet deep, which brought us just a little more than an arm’s reach away from the best corral yet. It was near the surface at some points, which required swimming through pathways between the coral, pathways which were filled with life, darting fish, countless sea anemones, and urchins the size of footballs. It was incredible.
I was admiring a huge colony of brain corral, when I saw Jason wave at me. He pointed near me when he got my attention and I followed his eyes to the sea floor where there was a sting ray flat on the sand, not buried in it like they sometimes do to hide while hunting. This thing made no attempts to hide or be camouflaged, because it’s five foot wing span made it clear that it dominated the eco system through power and size. Camouflage is only necessary if you think your prey has a chance of stopping you from eating it. It didn’t move at all, except for its long straight and powerful tale, which swayed gently in the water like a fishing lure. It was only a few feet away.
I turned around quickly.
But then I watched it, watched it do nothing, but noticed the lack of fish and other life around it. It was a fortress, a living fossil. It was a bad ass local.
We snorkeled for a few more minutes, but when we got out we started babbling about the sting ray. Our guide was interested, despite the fact that he had seen many. He asked us questions about it, we described the size and the gray color. He seemed pleased with our enthusiasm and we talked about sting rays, and how awesome snorkeling is as we pulled off our flippers, and chugged water out of plastic bottles.
“It’s like being in space,” he said “you float and you meet things that are very alien.”
I agreed whole heartily. He drove us back and we thanked him. He was a good guy, he had shown us a great time, and seemed genuinely pleased that we liked his hobby. And he had us back at 5:00 sharp, just like he said. Gotta love the Dutch, unable to turn off punctuality and efficiency, still not quite on island time. Still not quite a local.