Flights to and from Bocas Del Toro, Panama, can be delayed by home runs. I know because I was on a flight traveling there from Panama City and our flight was delayed, and the reason, as best as I could tell, was that somebody turned on a fastball. Jason and I were riding a Panamanian Airlines twin propeller plane to Panama’s best tourist destination, the Bocas Del Toro archipelago off the Atlantic coast, when the Captain announced (in English and Spanish) that we couldn’t land. We would have to circle around the main island and re-approach the runway because there were kids playing on it.
I was already concentrating on my breath with my eyes closed, trying (and failing) to ignore the effects of the lurching and jerky descent on my stomach. I wanted the flight to be over, and I was especially resentful of everyone on board because during the three minutes of the two hour flight that I closed my eyes and listened to Weezer’s “Surf Wax America” on my head phones (I told myself I would get up on a wave during this trip) the flight attendant had passed me by during the distribution of snacks. So when I opened my eyes (I hadn’t even fallen asleep) I was horrified to see everyone on board the tiny plane munching happily on Fun Yuns. Hungry, resentful, and nauseous all at once, I became angry at the damn kids who were playing on a god damn working airport runway, sentencing me to another extra twenty minutes of bouncing around in the turbulent sky.
As we made our final approach and my stomach started its usual falling from the sky paroxysms (maybe best without the Fun Yuns, actually) I found myself imagining what kind of kids would hop a fence, probably multiple fences, probably garnished with spools of barbwire, to jump on a runway. There must have been a bet, or maybe a rapidly escalating game of truth or dare that got out of hand. In spite of how awful my stomach felt, I was hoping the kids wouldn’t get put in jail or something. Hell, in the U.S. they would probably just shoot you on site for sneaking onto a runway.
When the plane landed and we walked onto the grass-cracked strip of tar that we had landed on, I saw that the runway sat next to an overgrown and under-maintained baseball diamond. There was no fence in between the field and the runway, not even a real warning track. I felt like an idiot, as I often do when traveling and realize that as much as I try to not be, I am still the kind of American traveler who silently pouts about not getting Fun Yuns and assumes every airport has things like security and fences.
The runway was closest to the diamond in right-center, and it would’ve only taken a big lefty to open his hips and get the head of the bat out in front of him to bounce one on the tarmac, delaying traffic. It only would’ve taken took one sweet swing to keep people stuck on this island for a few minutes more. Having spent close to two weeks in Bocas Del Toro I can tell you that seemed to happen to a lot of travelers. They got one sweet moment, got into a nice groove, and all of a sudden they couldn’t take off again. Bocas was one of those places where local and tourist are not discrete categories, but ends of a spectrum that travelers slide along as they stay in the tropical paradise for years, and that locals move toward the middle of as they get the travel bug themselves and backpack across the world, only to return and set up hostels and restaurants with a new understanding of the backpacker lifestyle.
Local Or Tourist? Case study #1: Alex
We met Alex after we got off the plane. I grabbed my bag that I checked because I haven’t traveled as much as Jason and apparently haven’t figured out a way to travel with every needed item in a backpack like he did. I’m not even talking about one of those bloated camping backpacks with the straps stretched across canvas and holding on for dear life. I mean a backpack that says “I just rode my bike to the grocery store and picked up a loaf of bread.” He has some magic I don’t understand. Or he just doesn’t need as many clothes because he doesn’t sweat through multiple t-shirts per day, like I do. I used “t-shirt” as my garment of choice in the previous sentence for the sake of civility, but know that I could give far more effective examples of the way my body contaminates all things cotton, no matter how “breathable” their marketing material says they are.
Anyway, I picked up my bag and we got a taxi to Hostel Luego, which is am admittedly clever name for a hostel. The driver waited till he could get no more people into his truck, then he assured me he could get me a boat tomorrow, and “whatever I need.” We then started driving down the incredibly flat roads. There was a very good looking American couple who looked a little nervous.
We asked them where they were going.
“Red Frog beach,” the girl said. “Our friend is paying for a week’s stay down here and he invited us down.”
“How about you guys?” the dude asked.
Before we could answer the driver pulled up to Hostel Luego. The ride was maybe thirty seconds long. It was two blocks from the airport. We ended up giving him three dollars, which was absurd in the context of what we paid to get around Panama City, but whatever. Our driver told us to call him.
Alex met us at the door. He’s a tall skinny kid of about 25 with shoulder length hair. He looks like he surfs, and by that I mean he is doesn’t have an ounce of fat on him. But the difference between the surfers there and Alex is that Alex, in the limited interactions I had with him, always had a purpose. I don’t mean that he had an agenda, of that he was devious at all. He was decidedly genuine and friendly, but not overly so, and he gave off the vibe that although he was perfectly ready to shoot the shit with you for a minute or two he wasn’t going to chill with you around the hostel. He ran this hostel and he clearly took it seriously. He lead us into the hostel and every wall was freshly painted and every angle, seam, and doorframe boasted the clean-cut, protractor straight steadiness of the newly and professionally renovated.
“You guys need a room?” he asked.
We told him we did. He broke down the prices quickly and gave us our options. It was cheap, like fifteen a night, and we didn’t have to sleep in dorm rooms. The AC was broken on the bottom floor at the moment. As he was telling us I found myself pulling out my passport to write down my passport number before he had gotten through his very quick and pointed description of the place. He didn’t waste time. I appreciated that. It’s never fun to stand in the lobby at a hostel wearing a sixty pound backpack across one shoulder as a hostel employee lists every attribute, rule, and policy of the place you are staying, knowing ahead of time that you are going to remember none of it with any kind of accuracy.
He signed us in and opened the door for us. If we had any questions he’d be happy to help us out. Simple, to the point.
The hostel itself was comfortable and welcoming, with an outside TV and couches that more than a couple people seemed to be glued to. There was a guy from Alabama with a great southern drawl, a friendly guy who I easily talked about all sports with (except soccer). He had traveled down through Central America, and it was not the first time he had made the trip. He was obviously burnt out on traveling, and more than one day he seemed to just lie on the couch, drinking beer or rum, and then go to bed before people really started to go out. He wasn’t awkward at all; he just really seemed to be burnt out on traveling, as was the Israeli who was often on the couch next to him. The Israeli at least had the energy to laugh and joke loudly, demonstrating a capacity for mirth that the Alabamian (is that right?) didn’t seem to have, outside of the rolling chuckle he sometimes let get away from him. Maybe it’s just a southern thing. Either way, I liked both of them a lot, and Jason and I watched my Celtics play his Sixers in the NBA playoffs at that hostel on a couple of different nights while passing around rum with those guys. I’ve seen travelers like that, the ones that are wearing stained clothes over burnt skin, the ones who have been drinking at the same types of bars along a thousand mile trail, the ones who have run out of momentum to keep traveling with any real purpose, the ones who are just making it from couch to couch, watching Two and Half Men (always on in Latin America) and Frasier with Spanish subtitles. I’m not ripping on these guys. I usually really like them, as I did with these two. They weren’t trying to impress anybody, they weren’t monopolizing the space, and they gladly shot the shit with you in a perfectly congenial way. They were quick with a joke, although the Alabamian’s humor was dryer and darker. We all wish we could seize the day, everyday, and travel with a manic energy and purpose. To see the world and conquer it, and breathe every inch of it, and get your hands dirty in every corner of it, that’s what travel is supposed to be about, right? We all wish we could travel like conquerors, expanding our own personal territory while slaying one experience after another, and making foreign customs and monuments bow in familiarity to our wordliness. God bless those people who can do it, the ones who make the most out of every day. But give me those weary travelers on the couch over the ones who need to go see another cookie cutter Spanish church any day. (They really are all the same. You think the inquisition really allowed a lot individual expression? Spanish churches are like the McDonalds of the colonial era.)
Of course, there was a crazy person at Hostel Luego for the simple reason that there is always one crazy person (no more, no less) at every hostel I’ve ever been to. I didn’t even catch his name, but he did three things that were weird and awkward, which by themselves would not make one crazy. I have lots of weird and awkward friends, and I wouldn’t be that offended if someone turned those adjectives on me. But to have supreme confidence in your weird and awkward ways is the sign of a serial killer. Of course, he was American.
Insane thing #1: On his first night there we were all lounging around on the couches, drinking, and watching TV. It was me, Jason, the Alabamian, the Israeli, and the tall, gregarious Swedish guy who was traveling with his very attractive and predictably cold Swedish girlfriend and an almost as attractive and even colder Norwegian girl, who were also both present. We were all sort of talking, drinking, and making fun of the movie that was on and ourselves for watching it. It was decidedly unfunny and not at all appropriate to drink to. It was the film “Brothers,” in which Toby Maguire is captured in Afghanistan, pronounced dead, then released back to his family after the pronouncement, which produces a lot of shock and a lot of Tobey Maguire looking creepy and uncomfortable. Needless to say he returns with serious case of PTSD and not a tiny case of the crazies.
Somehow this came on and nobody turned the channel. Again, we were talking through most of it. The American guy sat down and then proceeded to ask us to be quiet. We were an hour into the movie before he walked in and tried to turn the whole room silent. I kept trying to tactfully refuse him with comments like “you don’t need to hear it. There are subtitles,” and “do you really need to know what’s going on? It’s Jake Gyllenhal and Natalie Portman alone. Body language says it all.” He clearly was getting really irritated by everyone who dared to talk over a Tobey Maguire movie. Eventually he left, but not before doing insane thing#2, which was to declare to the room that he really wanted to go to Afghanistan.
“Why?” asked everyone present.
“Because it’s beautiful there. It’s a beautiful culture. I really want to go.”
“Might want to wait a few years on that one,” I said.
The next morning I heard crazy thing #3, which consisted of me hearing the following exchange through the door of my room as I lay in bed, covered in sweat from the lack of AC.
“Ah, hello,” in a heavily (probably German) accented English.
“Say thank you,” stated firmly. I was intimidated in my bed. I recognized the voice as our future Afghani tourist.
“ah…sorry, what?” this was said, again, in heavily, heavily accented English.
“Say thank you! I just walked all the way down the hall to open the door for you. Say thank you!” his voice was not at all firm. It was sharp, angry, crazy.
“oh…yes…sorry…I mean…uh…thank you?”
Silence and then footsteps. No “you’re welcome.” What a dick.
One night, while I was sitting on the roof deck and sipping on a coffee mug of rum, Alex and a two of his friends came to the roof. There is no light up there, so strangely enough I never really saw either of his two friends’ faces. I also had to make sure I gave a friendly “what’s up?” before they got too far onto the deck because I knew if I waited more than a second or two to say something I would’ve scared the bejesus out of them because they couldn’t see me at all.
“Oh, hey man…” Alex said. Clearly couldn’t see who I was. I mentioned that I was the hideously deformed backpacker that he checked in earlier that day, hiding in the shadows where no one could see me. Also, did he have an organ I could play?
His friends were both American, and both lived in Bocas. They rolled up a joint and passed it around, and included me in their conversation. One of them who owned a bar in town and couldn’t’ have been any older than me told me all about the different beaches. “Everyone’s going to try and take you to Red Frog,” he declared. “Don’t go there. It’s not bad, but don’t go there. Go to Wizard Beach. “
We talked NBA and I then I asked what they were doing there. The friend who owned the bar said that he opened a bar with a friend their six years ago and that he had an open mic night on Tuesday.
Alex said he had been there for four years managing the hostel. I never was quite clear on whether he was the owner or the manager, but given the way he talked about it as if it was his own, and talked about all the plans he had for it and the improvements he had already made, I assumed it must be his baby.
They told me all about the place, mentioned friends with names that were both Spanish and Anglo sounding. Alex wanted to know what I did, and I told him I worked online. When I mentioned that I also occasionally wrote people’s resumes he suddenly declared, “I need a resume, if I ever leave here.”
“When are you going to leave here?” his friend asked.
“I don’t know, soon, maybe,” he laughed, as did they. I gathered that leaving was promised often. “If I do, I’m gonna need a resume. “
“What would you even put on it?” asked the second friend, who was there doing something vague for his parents that lived in Bocas as well.
“Are you kidding? I’ve been managing a hostel since I was 22. Five years management experience. That’s something. I could get a job with that.”
“You could,” I said “but it depends what kind of job you want.”
“Who knows?” he said, and that was the last of it. We watched the moon over the water, and the trees sway behind the row of hostels, bed and breakfasts, and bicycle rental shops that lined the water.
“You play any instruments?” his friend with the bar asked me.
“I strum on a guitar really badly,” I said. “I can jam out on three chords though.”
“Dude, you gotta come to open mic on Tuesday. Everyone gets up. Nobody can really play.”
“I don’t have a guitar here,” I said. “I can barely play anything.”
“We’ll have a guitar for you. You come, get drunk, and go up there. You have to. Everyone here does. “
I never went to that open mic. I should’ve. I guess seizing the day is about more than visiting Spanish churches.
Local or Tourist? Case Study #2: Surf Instructor
Having only been surfing once before, in Portugal with no waves, no instructor, and no success , I was looking to hire a surf instructor and conquer giants (or just get vertical on a board. Once. Then I could never surf again and live out my life safely on land away from sharks.)
After getting a recommendation from Juan, Alex’s one staff member at the hostel, we set out for Bibi’s, a restaurant on Caranero Island that stood on stilts over impossibly aquamarine water. We were told that we could find a surf instructor there. We got in a water taxi, and told the driver to wait while we tried to find the resident instructor and rent a couple of boards.
We found him fairly quickly. There were bungalows all along the beach from the dock to Bibi’s, and in between some of them was the office for the bungalows and the surf school. Nobody was there so we headed to the restaurant where we found S.I. (I learned his name at the time, I swear. ) He was working on a canoe of some sort.
“Move a little to the side,” he told us in only slightly accented English. “You don’t want to get hit by a coconut.”
I looked up and realized there was a palm tree swaying twenty feet in the air above me.
“It happens,” he said.
At first he told us that he could do tomorrow morning at nine. That was early to get up and get to the island (our Hostel was on the main island, a ten minute water taxi ride away from Bibi’s) but we agreed. Jason, having surfed in Mexico, didn’t need an instructor, but I did.
Then as we walked away and were halfway down the beach, S.I. came running back to us and told us that, nevermind, he could take us right now.
He got boards for us, including one for me that he said was perfect for a beginner. We then hopped back on the water taxi, and S.I. told us that we would go to Wizard Beach. The taxi driver then told us that he needed to get gas before he could take us that far. He also agreed to hang out on his boat while we surfed, since Wizard Beach was sort of remote, and taxis don’t just pass by randomly looking for fares. Between the paying for the lesson, renting the two boards, and paying the taxi driver, the three hour session turned out to be around $80. Whatever. I was ready to surf.
The motor boat chugged it ways around the corner of the island to a gas station on the water. While he filled up, Jason noticed that by the house at the end of the filling dock was a monkey, tied to a rope which was attached to a little bird house. These people had a pet monkey, which in my mind is a very clear indicator of a person’s success. Nevermind that they lived in a sort of dilapidated house. They had a pet monkey. Life had to be good.
We played with it, and it would grab onto our fingers with disturbingly humanish little hands that held our outstretched fingers for support and looked into our eyes while it slowly slouched to a sitting position. Right away it was evident that this was a very lazy monkey. Or maybe it was sick. It absent mindedly nibbled at my hand. S.I. laughed with us, and then finally made it clear that our driver was ready, and we left the monkey reluctantly. It sat down on top of his house, feet dangling like a child, and stared off into the distance.
We stopped and got water at a little oceanside general store and headed to Wizard Beach. We talked to S.I. on the way. It turns out he was from a nearby area of Panama. He was dark skinned, and probably of indigenous decent, and absolutely cut with no body fat on him. His shaggy and straight brown hair had the sea salted crust that seemed Californian. Like most surfers, he was almost aggressively “laid back” and friendly. He told me he had taken a sail boat and sailed to Australia, where he had surfed for a few years, and had survived by giving lessons. All of this is to say that S.I. seemed pretty fucking cool.
But in spite of how much I liked him personally, he was a terrible surf instructor.
When we arrived at Wizard Beach, which is on the Rasta flavored island, Bastiamentos, I saw why he insisted that the taxi driver stay in the harbor. Wizard Beach is as picturesque and as secluded as you could possibly hope for. The white sand beach stood alone on the edge of the jungle, with no buildings of any kind in sight. We covered ourselves in sunscreen (evidently not enough), jumped into the water and swam to shore. S.I. gave me a very basic course on how to stand up, and practiced the jumping push-up that is required to get up on a surfboard. There was what looked like to my untrained eye a steady stream of quality, but not intimidating, waves and only one other person on the beach. It was as near a secluded tropical paradise as I’ve ever been too. If a pack of British pre-teens ran by with spears and a conch while chasing a fat kid, I would not have been surprised.
We got in the water and I pretty immediately understood why surfers are so ripped. Surfing is hard work. The paddling is non-stop. A few times I laid on my board to catch my breath while S.I. asked if I was alright. Of course I was fine, but in the first ten minutes I had my board hit me in the head and my chest was red from rubbing against the board. Still, I was determined to get up.
S.I. held the board for me a few times as a wave came, and then told me to paddle as the wave slid underneath the board and elevated it out of the blue sea. I would get me legs extended for a split second before the board squirted out from underneath me and I fell back into the waves. Then I would paddle back out while he effortlessly rode some waves. Then I would try to do it myself, not time it right at all, or worse, and more often the case, find myself facing out to see as the wave reached me, and not only would I not be able to ride the wave, I would pop out of the water closer to shore with S.I yelling at me to paddle out to where he was, which might as well have been the Canary Islands. Most of the time he was riding waves and yelling vague encouragement as I flapped around in the water like a toddler wearing swimmies.
At some point he decided I needed to get up, mostly because I finally put in the effort to paddle out all the way to where he was.
“I want you to ride one,” he told me. “Yeah, “ I said. “Me too.”
He held the board for me while I turned it around. He then yelled at me to paddle, always a little before or after my own intuition told me to, which goes to show that my intuition sucks at surfing too. But finally I did get up, and all of the soreness across my upper back, and the red sandpaper that was now my chest were forgotten. I didn’t stay up long, but I rode the wave out, and it was a sort of exhilaration that can only come from subduing one of naturels larger forces, like the ocean, or the wind, or gravity, and making it subservient to you. I emerged from the water grinning.
S.I gave a genuine shout of joy, and stuck his tongue out put his fist up in the air with his pinky and his thumb out, and shook it. Hang ten. Finally.
I rode one more wave over the course of the next hour. Help from S.I. was cut off when two more surfers entered our area, one of whom was a gorgeous blonde Australian girl that S.I. sat next to on his board in the water and flirted with while yelling encouragement to me as I rolled around in the waves. Finally we made it back to the boat, and I realized that I was feeling very, very nauseous, presumably from swallowing a small harbor worth of sea water. On the boat ride back, I closed my eyes and tried not to vomit. Thankfully, I was successful. It was a good day: I rode a wave on a surfboard and didn’t throw up on anybody. Badass.
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.
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 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.