Panamá: Bocas del Toro

Yep, buses were leaving all the time back to David, some going on to Bocas, too. But since buses didn't run over or under water yet, and there wasn't a bridge or tunnel, mine would actually only go as far as Almirante. There I would transfer briefly via a five-minute taxi shuttle through a dusty town to catch a taxiboat, a vehicle infinitely better suited for making water passages. But that'd be getting a little ahead of myself.

By coincidence, the woman talking up Bocas from my El Boquete hostel was on the same small bus to Almirante. We hadn't crossed paths or made plans after our brief chat in the morning, but all roads apparently led to David's bus terminal where we bumped into each other again. Always happy to see a familiar face while traveling (usually, anyway), I soon engaged her in some conversation, further quizzing her about Bocas Town.

An innocently-begun banter soon went curiously south after the first few questions, however. My new friend abruptly went cold and effectively terminated the dialogue. Let me rephrase: she suddenly putting her belongings between us and fully turned her body to forcefully engage herself with the non-events occurring outside of her window. Huh? I was quite sure I hadn't said anything insulting, nor had I wanted to. I didn't remember farting; my teeth were brushed and I had showered... huh?

Now an event in rudeness shouldn't necessarily garner much note (BEWARE OF UPCOMING, MASSIVE DIGRESSION), but an aspect of this rude behaviour was something I had run into not only on this trip, but on various previous trips as well. I called it (using my inner voice, mind you!) Been To The Mountaintop Syndrome ("syndrome" made it all officiallike). Someone so suffering from the Syndrome (not that they saw it this way) could coldly suffer no fools, nor allow the submission of any evidence of rain: a parade was in progress. That parade, of course, was person-traveling-alone-and-finding-the-greater-truth-and-oneness-in-travel.

Now, a funnily ironic thing was that I found independent people with their shit together totally cool; this was something appealing to me as a defining characteristic,even. In particular, I was (am) attracted to women not afraid to take some risks, have their own agenda, and so forth. They were/are invariably more interesting just by their nature of being adventuresome. When breaking stereotypes (safety, comfort, etc.), this was/is doubly true.

Perhaps it was this notion of having an agenda, outside the purview of any probity, that perturbed me following such situations. A core part of my being was/is to question just about anything, if only primarily out of curiosity. To sufferers of this syndrome, however, it invariably seemed that in asking travel questions about what might come ahead, or how they dealt with safety issues, or about relating special experiences - this somehow cheapened their travel. The examined life was not worth living, in other words, even if it probably took a lot of examination to get to that point.

I hadn't figured out exactly the mechanics of how such a realization came to be, but it appeared some kind of zen-ism was disturbed when asking the question in the first place. On such occasions I was made to feel that in doing so I had unwittingly proven oneself unworthy - merely by not being only open to letting the adventure unfold of its own accord. This was kind of a version of by having to ASK, one couldn't KNOW (fighting a cliché with a cliché.)

In another analysis, I guessed that it was more the case that I was intruding on a romantic image of travel that they (alone, of course) were embodying. Once judged by them so - as not in the proper state of oneness with travel - negatively affected their own oneness of travel. Then, once such a judgement had been pronounced, the following sentence for the miscreant (me) would be a succession of lofty behaviours accompanied by cryptic remarks which one should, of course, be grateful to receive.

For example, asking where one might find a nice cheap hostel merited "There are many great places in town - you'll find your place." Or trying to determine how much time a bus took earned "You will get there soon enough - it's a marvelous journey." And so forth. Fine things all, but when stated with a smug detachment devoid of specifics, one almost expected that what came next would have been our hero(ine) suddenly assuming a squated pose as eight arms mystically appeared.

From there each finger-cymballed digit would come together in a simultaneous "clink", and something assuredly would've happened with the lighting, too. Buddha, Boddhisatva, Shiva or Whomever had just imparted great wisdom. Now the novice grasshopper must be off on an inner journey to find enlightment, dontcha know. Yeesh.

I guess I'm trying to say that the hippie chick's platitudes ticked me off. By (now) mutual consent, we didn't talk anymore for a few hours of pleasant journeying over the scenic highlands of Panamá. Vistas of hills and dales, vast greens, browns, and yellows under a blue sky... these all grew gradually cooler figuratively, then literally as we ascended to the road's the highest point. Physical warmth would soon return on our descent to the Carribean, however. What more could one really to say to that? Nothing.

Meanwhile the truceful silence between us feuding fools would ultimately be broken by some information being volunteered, if only at the last moment. Apparently hours of enlightened quiet had earned me the wisdom I was to receive or, rather as I saw it, Buddha went to the mountain, wasn't followed, and so came back down again... in magically better spirits and a frozen smile. (My .05c psychoanalysis eventually ran toward loneliness ill-served by lofty nonsense, but I was just a stupid grasshopper, not a paid psychoanalyst. Not yet, anyway!)

This had similarly been much like the situation I found with my original contact in PC, who had bored of me quickly after meeting. When I subsequently and obviously had a grand time with all of the other guests, however, I was re-judged to be worthy after all. This had been a result of their behaving more human-like toward me, however, letting their eyes actually make contact with mine while conversing within a group - no coincidence.

Funny, that. In both of these cases, I just hadn't taken the time to make all of the unknowable supplications necessary to earn good graces. I didn't have any magical key, and didn't look for it, either. With fun people to hang out in the meantime, life was too short for such games of enlightenment.

(A side note: a week or two after my return from Panamá, I would receive a sunny email from this contact in PC who had ignored me there, and who had made no further contact with me while in Panamá - nor I with her, for that matter. She detailed her latest upcoming adventures, never alluding to the fact that she had completely blown me off shortly after my arrival. We hadn't spent much time together before then, either, having only had a date in Seattle many months previous. The email had a chip-chip-cheerio lilt to it which belied any actual communication we had, or rather, didn't have - weird.)

Back to the Bocas story (END OF HORRID DIGRESSION: START READING AGAIN HERE!), I had to get on the boat and off of the bus in Almirante. I found myself at a junction in the road (at Almirante's outskirts) that served as a transfer for buses headed on to Costa Rica's Carribbean side. In reality this wasn't much more than a restaurant alongside a dusty dirt road, but taxis immediately and magically appeared from nowhere to shuttle passengers over to the Bocas del Toro boat taxis or wherever. Everyone just got into whichever taxi was nearest with whomever. There was primarily only one place to go, and that's where we were going.

The five-minute ride effectively traversed a slum in a kind of back-alley tour, but we soon found ourself outside of the concrete shacks that served as terminals for the low-riding, 15-20 passenger shuttles to Bocas. And, should there have been any doubt, I could plainly see that I was now on the Carribbean side, too. All of my new shipside neighbors had suddenly gained obviously-African ancestry, replacing the latin look almost in entirety. Jah mon!

Among the begrudged platitudes, anyway, the hippie chick hadn't lied. It WAS a nice ride - the boat taxi, that was. "Marvelous" would be overstating it to anyone who had been to any tropical islands before, but island travel in the tropics was still by any definition pretty. Soon we were moving too fast to let the heat and humidity smother us, too... for the moment.

We saw some skipping fish, palm trees - not a bad racket. That stated, I quickly convinced myself that the boat driver nonetheless would just as soon have been at home with a beer and a joint in his hand instead of a steering wheel. This was just stereotyping the dreadlocked, green-red-yellow-black-knit-hat-in-stifling-heat-bored-look thing he had going, of course.

Soon we sidled up to the main dock in Bocas Town, and immediately upon my exiting the boat I was befriended by a young teenage boy ready to recommend places to stay. Never to be one against a little entrepenourship, I would have preferred to catch my breath first, however. There would be none of that: he quickly steered me down the main street (unbidden) and immediately got to the heart of the matter.

Basically that was this: what price I was willing to pay? He ran down the options as I questioned him some about them. I tried not to be overly perturbed about being so quickly accosted for business - I really just wanted to sit down and get my bearings, a time-honored traveler's complaint.

In any event, for such a cheap price as my lodgings tended (always!) to be, I wasn't too worried if I was steered wrong on this first day in the islands. My impromtu guide freely admitted to getting a commission from wherever he took me, a frankness I admitted to appreciating. He said he was officially commissioned with a (probably non-existent) state tourism office, which I ignored.

Whatever - I soon had a room for all of $15 in relatively sold-out Bocas Town on the eve of carnival. Smack-dab on a corner of the main square, too, where the action would be (for better or....) As it would later check out, all the information he had given me regarding the other places was completely true, too. Hey - the state tourism office should've given him a commission, and a job.

Carnaval (carnival - duh) is a big hoohah in Latin America, no question. Well-advertised, panties get tied in knots among travelers to be in the right place for a "good" carnaval, too. That is, in Rio, Trinidad & Tobago, etc. That hid a basic reality, however: I had always found carnival to be pretty good wherever I was. Now this might seem like more zen gibberish, but it was completely true. A bunch of people out to party and break out from the norm of the year's drudgery, complete with some amount of local tradition - this was always a good thing. Without fail.

Bocas' specialty was devils. Not just devils, mind you - ASS-whippin' devils. I didn't have long to wait to see what this was all about. From my balcony overlooking the main square, I immediately settled down for a beer to mix with people watching and tooting a few tunes on the trumpet quietly. But, as afternoon tended toward evening, little by little the crowds began to gather. And, at some point from a stage overlooking the square, a sound system soon started up with some reggae sitting on an insistent beat. The devils started to come out.

Red and black. Or rather, black with highlights in red. That was the devils' costume du jour. Homemade bodysuit costumes adorned with frills and fringe made their way adorning bodies above large feet flanked by claws masking sneakers. At the highest end, an enormous head of papier-maché provided the focus and highlight of the costume. Impressive.

Large eyes, menacing teeth, and a wicked look conspired to complete the menacing look of these monstruous creations. In totality each took up the size of a man's torso (though considerably wider in some cases), almost all resting above the shoulders. Inspection turned out to be only possible in a cursory sense, however: it was impossibly tough to do when the devils were on the move. And they were.

And how. The magic of the devils lay in their motion, I soon found. Adopting the beat of the music - BOOM-BOOM... POW! - the devils pranced at a manic pace. In moments, one devil could cover a great amount of territory, flying furiously along the crowd-lined main street, almost always high-stepping perfectly in time to the music's beats.

These men of twenty years or so were athletic at the very least, possibly stoned to the gills at the most. As they spun up and down the street, they uncoiled and snapped whips they carried, each completing a hellish image of fury. Men - boys - of like age and mien alternately took their turn disengaging from the crowd, taunting them; a stick would be held out in front to complete a dare: the whipping was on.

This all had the makings of a manhood ritual, I figured (something I would later believe to be even moreso accurate.) The whips were REAL. And they really HURT. On numerous occasions, the stick of daring would be snapped away (or broken) by the whip, rendering the holder defenseless, and setting in motion a great scurrying for safety as the devil went in for the kill.

Some form of rules apparently existed, where the devil would only whip-strike below the knees, but this was probably of scant comfort to the darer-turned-coward when the devil pounced. The cracks of the whip were furious, and welts appeared where the whips made contact. Sometimes the victim would trip, or be tripped by the whip, compounding the misery. Ouch.

What compelled someone to do such a thing - on either side - was a mystery to me. But it made for a mad form of entertainment, certainly. I imagined that the greater feats of daring and maliciousness were recounted among the participants for some time after carnival ended. Perhaps there were rewards to be had, women to earn the admiration of, too - I could only guess. In the meantime I'd enjoy the show: the whipping and prancing, to the choreography of music, had a mesmerizing effect in its reality of painful consequences laid out in full public view.

But all fun came to an end, though, and after two hours of brutality enough was enough, I supposed. Later that evening, and over the next couple of days, I befriend a couple of Swiss rocker dudes and a couple(-seeming) pair of surfers of Nova Scotia in my hotel. I also walked up and down the few streets of town, finding a couple of choice spots to play my horn, too. My usual thing.

Hornwise, I tried to not impose myself on the minor horde that traipsed up and down the main (and practically only) commercial street. This soon extended to my general person as well after being amidst the hubbub for a couple of days. I decided that the greater amount of street life and restaurants was all fine and good, but what I really wanted was to get out to another island and experience more of island-styled life. Or, I should say, MY style of island life.

My new friends had similar ideas, so over the course of the same day we separately made our way over to the other town in the island group, Bastimentos. This was much more of a locals' place, yet only 10-15 minutes away by boat from Bocas Town. No cars and no roads would be a cool change there as well, but it was still hot as hell, of course.

On Bastimentos a main sidewalk connected the buildings of the more inhabited corner of the island. On this I soon made my way down as I tried to find a place to stay. Not much room at the end, apparently, but ultimately I was able to get a room. Shooting for a hostel bed in vain, as in Bocas Town, I was nevertheless happy to soon have my own room for $16 instead. Right on the water.

This turned out to be serendipitous. As a "hotel" my new home really functioned more like a hostel, anyway, as cheap lodgings in developing countries had a habit of doing. And "right on the water" was not a figurative figure of speech, either. We literally were poised on stilts above the water, a gangplank pier connecting us to the island. This was "Jaguar's" place, a nice guy of about 35 years of age who looked more than a little like Dave Chappelle. Just with a Jamaica-ish accent.

The rooms offered a minimum of privacy, but at least they locked for security and most had bathrooms. "Effluent" went directly into the sea, unfortunately, but at least the tide swept it to points unknown and the water was clear for the most part. Flushes overheard could lead to unpleasant thoughts, of course, but I would have the good fortune of not seeing any turds float by...

...even as I was looking at the water a lot. Hammocks were strung up at the water-facing side of the building, and these soon were my focus in the place. I didn't think about it at the time, but hammocks by design had a built-in advantage of looking at the sky and distance instead of waters immediately underneath. A good idea, but one shouldn't think too much sometimes....

Well, sewage and trash WERE problems on Bastimentos. The tide might take away the sewage, but it likewise had a habit of depositing the profuse (often plastic) trash on the little strip of land that comprised Bastimentos town. That the local population merely chucked their trash out of their house windows certainly didn't help, either.

Fortunately any accompanying smells weren't rank, but I couldn't help but wonder why this situation should be. Here I was again in a slice of paradise befouled by man, a typical refrain in poorer countries. These situations only seemed to improve when enough cash was waived in exchange for cleaning up a place for its own sake - or for that of the increased tourism that might occur. It so often seemed that culture just had no place for such tomfoolery as eco-mindedness until the green $$$ showed up.

The people were FRIENDLY, though - THAT perhaps was a nicer thing to note. They really were, although a little slice of the devil mayhem in Bocas town found its place on Bastimentos, too. Here it was more of a family variety, though: young kids could even be initiated locally, too, running a whip gaunlet on a tiny bridge in the sidewalk that connected the two halves of Bastimentos town.

Otherwise it was difficult to see what people did on the island. Some boats served as taxi shuttles, but otherwise it looked like most people were just hanging out. An outdoor hair salon seemed like one of the more popular places to pass some time; chickens scratched the earth of this business between chairs as neighbors hung out chatting while hair got brushed and clipped.

A few restaurants existed, but the one by an ex-pat (The Rooster) was easily the most popular (with the best view and food, too.) Such was the case with the tourists, anyway, but it looked like the tourists were the only ones likely to eat out. The locals ate at home, being both where the heart and kitchen already were.

I quickly got the entire lay of Bastimentos, but that wasn't saying much in terms of content. Near town were a number of far wealthier abodes on or next to the water, primarily reached by boat, but also connected via a land trail. The latter went through a no-man's land, settled primarily by the greatest amount of trash dumped in by the tide.

A traversal to the nicer real estate this way was only accomplished by walking a path of debris planks, each laid out to connect the segments of the way. A squatter's shack lay in the middle of this mess, too, and the children I found there were quite surprised and happy to see me pass through as I did my surveying rounds. On the other side of the refuse area, the wealthy residences abruptly began and I immediately felt like I was an interloper. Odd.

Such was the lay of the town. However, I spent most of my time resting in the hammock, sometimes playing my horn there, or crossing over the island's hump to the two main beaches, Wizard and Red Frog. The hike over the island to Wizard turned out to be a pleasant ritual shared by most of the tourists repeatedly each day. I'd usually bump into a handful of people on the 15- or 20-minute trek between tropical trees and a couple of farmlike homesteads. Some would be shlepping surfboards, some were barefoot. The red clay mud could be an issue when wet, but no one cared when a beach or a seaside shower awaited on the other side.

Wizard Beach was perhaps a kilometer long, with a generally steady surf that both surfers and sunbathers enjoyed alike. It never seemed like there were more than 5-20 people in total on its sands. Once there, there were some lean-to huts that one could use - a nice, forested area with good visibility and clear ground could provide relief from the sun if desired, too.

On a couple of more adventurous days, I walked beyond - from Wizard to Red Frog Beach. This was done along the water's edge, through some surf, some rocks, some trees and some coves. And mud. Perhaps it took another 40 minutes to get there, but I had to exercise outside of that hammock somehow!

Red Frog beach was similar in length to Wizard, but with a local's beachfront "restaurant" of sorts where one could get a beer or a bite to eat. At its far end, there was a small boardwalk over rocks to a secluded view including an overlook of a sea blowhole to provide some amount of idle entertainment. It was a great place to vege out, read a book - hell, I was sold, anyway.

One could also traverse the island from Red Frog Beach to a mangrove area away from Bastimentos town, another picturesque stroll. A handful of tourist shuttles took people to a dock among these mangroves from Bocas Town, allowing them to cross over the kilometer or so to Red Frog Beach through the idyllic canopy.

Invariably some kids lay in wait in the middle of this cross-over march, having captured some actual red frogs. These were rather small, perhaps over an inch in length, but they worked for pictures and change for the kids. That seemed to provide almost the full extent of the beach's economy.

Swimming was a little more predictable at Red Frog, too, part of its great allure to tourists over Wizard. For us travelers who settled in on Bastimentos, it nevertheless soon felt like we had "our" beach (Wizard) and the tourist interlopers from across the waters had "theirs" (Red Frog). I wondered what the islanders thought.

Over the course of a week, I achieved some sort of beach bum equilibrium on Bastimentos. I did a number of aimless hikes in the nearby area and to the beaches, too, where I would hang to read and get tossed around in the waves. I was one of those people for whom the ocean and the surf never got old. It was mesmerizing and calming, always. Even in storms!

On a few occasions I went back into Bocas town to catch the devils doing their thing, or a carnival parade, or a meal or cocktail. With no agenda and nothing specifically touristy to do, there didn't seem to be any self-generated pressure to see or do anything. In contrast to that, though, on one occasion I did take out a kayak once for several hours alone to check out the mangroves and a nearby island. Perhaps this was merely a guilty burst to burn some energy that otherwise was storing up in the lazy routine I had adopted.

Of course the other thing to enjoy, as always, was the people I was meeting during my island stay. For example there was a Swiss guy that I hung out with a bit, a gung-ho hiker. He had a habit of exclaiming "I REALLY LIKE THIS MUCH!" when something tickled his fancy. For those of us hanging out together, this was always good for a laugh in his open earnestness.

Two surfers from Nova Scotia, S and the very cute K, were around and about as well. They were always good for a beer, but provided for curiosity, too. How did they surf year-round in Nova Scotia? This was something I felt unbiased in believing to be nuts. They DID it, though... then most likely decamped to Panamá soon after to defrost.

Some Quebecois and French filtered in on and off, all of whom I abused with my French. I'd never been one to pass up opportunity - perhaps that was MY laughable earnestness! Lastly, another significant personality at Jaguar's was N, a singer-guitarist of Iranian-American ancestry. She was a fellow true traveler, interesting to exchange political commentary with. We played some tunes together a few times in the evening hours, pretty well-received by the others. N was not idle in her spare time, either, making puppets each time she sat around and chatted with whomever. Devils were her choice while in Bocas for obvious reasons.

Eventually the time had come to move on. I thoroughly enjoyed my routine in Bocas, but I wanted to see a little bit of the Pacific Ocean side as well before my plane came to grab me toward home. I momentously packed up my backpack one morning and finally set off. It would be a few boats, taxis, buses and many hours, but eventually I would make my way to Boca Brava - still had rested in the back of my mind to visit.

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