Panamá: Boca Brava

My latest version of "planes, trains, and automobiles" consisted of other vehicles (bus, taxi, boat), but it nevertheless was still an elongated affair. The first section - the boat to Bocas Town, the boat to Almirante, and the bus to David - pretty much went as scripted. They all ran non-stop in the daylight, taking a good chunk of the morning and early afternoon. In David, though, things became a bit more loose and unpredictable.

The usual Latin American "system" of waiting merely a few minutes for a bus to anywhere fell completely apart: the bus to Horconcitos took a couple of hours to arrive. A good explanation was never given, but from succeeding events, no competition, and the driver's nonchalant attitude, I suspected that the driver just wasn't much in the mood to make the run.

By the time he arrived, we weren't either. He pulled up in a shitty and decrepit minibus, wholly inadequate for the number of people and goods stacked up and waiting for him. I felt fortunate to make my way onboard, just managing a jumper seat with my face somewhat plowed into my trumpet case. Sardines never had it so good or bad, depending on one's opinion. Did I care? - I was in!

We creeped along and out of David in langorous heat, only made slightly more bearable by our low speed. A gas station stop - what, the driver couldn't have taken care of that ahead of time? - interrupted this sweating reverie unexpectedly, but at least the entire affair only lasted an hour-plus, mostly along the Panamerican Highway. The final non-PAHwy stretch was only a last few kilometers after the turnoff, at which point the vehicle started to empty quickly on the dusty road to Boca Brava.

For the minibus, the end of the line was to be the crossroads of Horconcitos - around halfway between the PAHwy and the coast at Boca Chica. It was up to the handful of us going on to the coast to figure out how to get to THAT town. Fortunately, since a couple of others were in my same (figurative) boat, one of them scrounged up a 4x4 taxi.

We eventually were off, but not until I had blown some tunes for the surprised denizens of the crossroads. Gotta make my racket! A pleasant surprise came next: what had been - until very recently - a horrific hourlong to Boca Chica had now turned into a quick twenty-minute affair, thanks to some repaving. From Boca Chica it would only take a minute or so more to find a launch that would take me the five minutes across Boca Brava Island.

Then I was finally there, at Frank's Dock. I looked up from the bottom of a long stairway to... heaven? Well, one might indeed think so. Frank, the German ex-pat owner of the island, probably DID think so. For the umpteenth time I had run into a German ex-pat at the end of the world, a king of a small realm. A former (current?) architect, Frank had slowly been transforming his abode with sweeping views on a cliff into a small hotel/hostel empire. Worked for me.

It was pretty cool the way this outpost complex had organically grown, actually. Older guidebooks mentioned a few cabanas (cabins) or hamacas (hammocks), but by the time of my arrival there were perhaps a dozen cabanas leading away from the bar/restaurant area. These were in addition to a large hammock room which had been converted into a large mattresses-strewn outdoor shelter of sorts.

Later I'd find out that the hammocks had slowly been appropriated or moved, as former arrivés (arrivals) had apparently determined preferred locations for them like the beach. No matter - the guiding principle that there was always room at Frank's End (my name for it) was still valid. I had a place to dump my stuff, fortunate since all of the cheap $10 cabanas were full.

Stowage accomplished, what better to do than go get a beer? Or two? And some cocktails? Or three? Fortunately, there was a convenient place to do just that - Frank had designed the most prominent part of the island's cliff well, creating an open restaurant/bar atmosphere spread over two levels with exposed and massive beams. The island vistas were taken full advantage of, as was the significant shore breeze.

We were on one edge of the Gulf of Chiriqui, which for the most part had become a national park. Frank's island purchase had predated that designation, a fortunate and significant monetary consequence. These days he sold off small parcels to wealthy folks, perhaps at a million $$$ a pop.

Not that you would see these tycoons or anything - folks with that kind of money have a habit of not spending much time in their far-flung luxury abodes. However, plenty of others with a few bucks to spare passed through Frank's, too - on their way to deep sea fishing. As his bar was really the only game in town, the only establishment on the island even as bigger Boca Chica across the way had nothing to match it - one would invariably find a good number of captains, mates, and customers nudging up to the bar for a drink and a bite to eat each night. Plus there might be the odd backpacker - like me, frinstance.

I sat myself down at the bar this first night, in what would turn out to be a lengthy and ultimately memorable night of boozing. And trumpet playing, which would figure largely into it. The WHY was the simple part: music on the blaring stereo was alternated between salsa and son. Trip Trumpet did indeed like his salsa. A few beers into it, I opened my case and played along and became a big hit immediately - hell, yeah! Soon I was being offered more cocktails as encouragement, off to the races.

At some point of course, I realized I was wasted, but by then I was in the middle of the dance floor with others dancing, chipping in horn riffs from my tired and by-then blasted lips. The show would go on! Until the wee hours, anyway. By that time, only a few of us remained at the bar. There I tried teaching Frank some son beats while I played over them - that was turning out to be a lot of fun. Then, all of a sudden... LIGHTS OUT!

It would be a mild understatement to say that Frank's wife must have not been happy with our musical exchange. In mid-phrase of some trumpet lick I got clocked by her, a harsh open slap to my hand on the valves of the trumpet. The trumpet gods were with me, though, as the horn was pushed violently away from my mouth (as opposed to the other direction.) Now THIS was what one could call a surprise.

Those coulda been my teeth!, I next thought in horror. The few of us remaining all let out a collective gasp, but more was to come. The wife next let forth with a Panamian-inspired spew of invective. Whoa. My Spanish was reasonably good, but not THAT good. But I got the message.

If I hadn't, my case was plucked from behind the counter and slid onto the floor in front of me to make sure. Sobriety could be an amazingly sudden thing, it turned out. Aghast, I packed up and made off to my awaiting mattress.

A few minutes later Julio, the friendly fellow German ex-pat bartender/in-house masseuse, came out to me. He apologized profusely, admitting that there was no excuse for what had happened. Chagrined still, I thanked him and went to bed still disturbed. I figured that I'd get the rest of the story and perhaps a proper apology in the morning. I wouldn't.

Instead, Frank was nowhere to be found. Instead his wife was behind the bar, coldly smiling at me. Not knowing exactly what to do, I meekly asked about trading up to a cabana while still weighing my options. The situation was this: I was in the middle of nowhere with no Plan B.

I certainly could resume my path of boats, taxis, and buses onward, but I was pretty tired of that. I had only just finished such an episode the day before! But did I really want to give more business to such a wench? I was confused.

Fortunately, wifey soon disappeared and Julio reappeared. From him I got the rest of the story, which reassured me somewhat. The small rotating staff had, over the years, had numerous run-ins with this moody dragon lady. I was hardly the first customer to be rudely treated by her. A consolation of sorts.

Yes, I was the first effectively punched, sure, but perhaps I could be proud to be a part of this official escalation of hostilities between the wife and the world. Frank had disappeared because, I found out, he was embarrassed. Julio explained that the couple had been up the entire night fighting over what had happened. This would never lead to an apology, but at least it'd let me stay on for another day or two with less concern.

So... on with the vacation! That was really the only decision to make. I ended up staying a few more days at Frank's, allowing me a chance to read and play my horn some. There wasn't too much to explore on the island, but there were troops of howler monkeys to stare at and listen to - at all hours.

Bats shared my quarters, too - how often did one get to see a bat up close (as in a few feet away close)? Not to mention a praying mantis? I walked all of the trails of the island, too, soon I swimming in all of the obvious beachlike spots. Sure, there was this slight jellyfish rash I got, but not much else was going on - that was okay, too.

It turned out that Frank's restaurant was the best consolation of all. His prices were reasonable, and all of the fare was better than adequate - some of it was quite good, actually. The service might (often would) take two hours, but that was an existing logistics problem that wasn't going to be solved on my watch. With something to read, waiting never bothered me anyway.

Starting on the second day, the patrons from that momentous first Brava night requested me to play the horn at the bar some more. But... no thanks. After the "incident" my spirit to play the venue was gone. Oddly, it was only later that I was to find that the locus of the "problem" was that the wife was upset by the fact that I was behind the bar. That I was with her husband, the OWNER, made no matter. Yes, I could spell POWER TRIP.

Thus I played to the rest of the island instead. Hear me, oh waters! Simultaneously, I checked out the sporadically-placed and vacant houses about (perhaps a dozen in total.) I inspected the water system across the island that Frank had set up for the future, too. I even walked the island's edge, running into cows that startled me as much them. All the while the howler monkeys had me to stare at, too - fair was fair.

There was always the bar, of course, and there I continually met folks stopping in for their transition to or from fishing. Also there were numerous Canadians in attendance, many very interested in buying land thanks to their now-more-powerful dollar. That was a venture to be taken slowly, however, so as not to be taken oneself. Still others, some elderly couples, ran down their ailments and cholesterol levels, talk which I assiduously avoided. What the hell were they doing talking about that on vacation?, I wondered.

Of most interest conversation-wise were two Canadians of a completely different ilk, each committed already on moving to Panamá completely. One was smug beyond belief, assuming an ignorance in me on matters of energy that I soon happily debunked. Not that he would relent the point that an American actually could be educated, reasonably worldwise, and not support George Bush - it never failed to amaze me how often American political culture was taken to be monolithic. 300 million people lived in the U.S. - yeesh.

Mr. Knew-It-Done-It-All had worked in the oil fields of Alberta in some scientific capacity, but now he was looking to disappear to an eco-residence of his making in the sticks. A Unibomber in the making? Sure, why not? He at least had the angry-at-the-world profile sufficiently established. I wished him luck, thinking that he wouldn't be the only one grateful once he made his shangri-la kingdom consisting of himself.

The soon-to-be-Canadian-ex-pat I spoke with was far more amiable, a fisherman by trade and passion. He was energetic about his trade, convinced I was missing out on something. Maybe I was - then again I HAD gone fishing a bit in Florida. Just not my thing - but I'll happy eat up any proferred. Hmmm... I could only talk fish and real estate for so long... before wanting a fish fry on my own beach. Yeah - time for a proper beach again!

A few days on Boca Brava had thus proven plenty. I hadn't taken advantage of the excusions to the other islands, although content with the detour nonetheless. How often did one get a cold-cocked trumpet story? Not that I wanted a repeat of it - uh, time to go!

I had only one problem: I didn't know exactly where to head to. With several days to go before my plane departed from PC, I next figured it was just best to return partially in that direction. Hopefully I'd find my own Shangri-La of a beach along the way.

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