IslaBocasdelToro Panama, March 99

4/3/99 - The Visa Run

Needing to renew my skimpy 30-day Costa Rican visa, I dragged myself out of bed to catch the 6am bus to the Panamanian border and thence to the laid-back, tropical isle of Bocas del Toro. Bocas is a popular visa renewing destination for many of the so-called "perpetual tourists" chilling out in Costa Rica.  The bus journey took me out to the Carribbean side of the country (3 hours) and then along the bumpy and dusty Atlantic coast road to the border. The trip was marrred by a few incidents. Near the indigenous indian village of Bribri, a young child riding a bicycle had been run over by a long truck; the
bus turned slowly past the small form covered in a white sheet. Immediately prior to this tragic scene I had been wittering away to the man beside me in broken Espanol about pedalling from Nicaragua down the Pacific Coast of the country. An American man in the front seat was mouthing off in Spanklish and it was only when we got off that his concerns were revealed - a woman had distracted them by dropping an earring and her friend had taken their toiletries bag from the rack above. "Honey, we're never coming back to this shitty country again, they're a bunch of thieves", etc etc. For most of the trip I had the pleasure of sitting beside a wizened old man from Bribri who reeked of alcohol and fags fortunately didn't fanct engaging in a slow discourse in elementary Espanol. At the border a slick el chico who told us he'd learnt all his English at the border was busy hustling people through the immigration process and into his friend's taxi. We stopped a couple of times at the request of the American couple so they could restock their bottles of Armani aftershave etc. Meanwhile young Rico was busy flirting with one of the passengers and fobbing off requests by a young Canadian girl sporting a tongue pierced by a dumbell for the exact price of the cab. Eventually he told us - $7 for each of us, $9 for the Americans, who didn't relent without a fight. Rico mouthed off a stream of fluent Espanol which, the Canadian girl informed me, was something about $2 being monkey shit for all his running around like a personal valet. Next stop was Changuinola, where we had to buy a tourist stamp from the Bank (a process which cost $10 each and which Rico insisted on seing to personally), and then to another place where one woman stuck the stamp in our passports with glue, then motioned us to go to another room where another woman stamped the entire page. Jobs for everyone, in this country. Someone said that in this part of the wold, the employment strategy is to pay people shit but have everyone employed rather than the converse as is the case elsewhere.  The taxi took us to the town of Almirante, where  $3 water taxi was waiting for us (also friends of Rico). By 4pm I was on the island. With no accomodation planned, I followed the Americans to Hotel Las Brisas, an elegant weatherboard shack with a slightly tatty but serene ambiance, and which boasts a marvellous deck out the back which seemingly floats in the water. As I checked into the only available room a young Dutch bloke who spoke strident Espanol fronted up. A resident of Costa Rica, he'd visited the island 15 times to renew his visa, and always stayed in that hotel. I offered to share my twin room with him, thus reducing the cost to $7.75 each, always worth doing. The town of Bocos is a single, wide street with business housed in shacks of varying degrees of repair and charm. The atmosphere is one of relaxed underdevelopment, though I got the distinct feeling it is about to explode onto the package tour map any week now. My new roommate, who I shall call Jungle boy for reasons that will be revealed later, took me to his favourite eatery where we imbibed three 50c pipas each. Pipas are a type of green coconut with deliciously refreshing water inside. I read that this water contains just the right balance of salts to replenish what is sweated out in this tropical climate. We gazed across the blue, balmy Atlantic waters punctuated by a lazily moving, bright red and green boat comandeered by a slender black warrier. At this point I remarked I no longer needed or desired to go to the Bahamas.

5/3/99 - A Long Walk

As nice as Las Brisas was, the noise of passing cars, dogs, trail bikes and vocal locals  kept both of us awake. He decided to go along with my plan of staying in Playa Bluff, a 3 hour walk north along a coastal track. The camino was spectacular - flowers, gold sand, palm trees, forest and free pipas dropping off trees which Jungle Boy cracked against the tree trunk so I could drink the juice. The Bluff Hotel turned out to be a series of abandoned grass shacks where one could hang one's hammock. Further on, we chanced across Finca Verde, a bar-restaurant with three almost-complete cabinas close to a gold beach. This is not the first time I wish I'd packed the tent. The only accomodation for us proved to be two hammocks hanging in and open shelter, of which my chivalrous Dutch bodyguard offered me the choice of the choicest. This was the first time I'd slept in a hammock and it took some logistics to get settled. Jungle Boy assured me with a smirk that hammocks flip over only in cartoons. The trick is to lie diagonally. At 4.30am I woke to take a leak and found he hadn't slept at all. Apparently hammocks ain't hammocks. I let him have mine for the remaining 3 hours, which I spent on the beach, waking intermittently and watching the sky lighten, go blue then grey.

6/3/99 - Children of the Moon

Today a curious couple turned up who claimed to be from nowhere important because "what is important, my friends, is that we are all one, brothers, sisters, children of one world, one universe ...". I dubbed them somewhat cynically Brother and Sister Moon. It soon became clear that the pair eked out their nomadic existence by preying on people's guilt and generosity - free accomodation, free food, in exchange for Brother Moon's halting flute solos and Sister Moon's sweeping of the already-swept floor. She managed to mesmerise Hanna, the owner's angelic toddler, who responded by proffering her new friend such privileges as television in the family's provate quarters and drinks from the fridge. At mealtimes, the oair would sit conspicuously and manipulatively with the rest of us, so that food was automatically offered to them. The food, by the way, was delicious - grilled kingfish, salad and fried slices of breadfruit for $4, washed down by a glass of tamarind juice. The breadfruit was as addictive as potato wedges; every now and then you'd hear a splat amongst the trees, signalling the untimely landing of this large, fibrous fruit. Brother Moon spent some time lecturing Jungle Boy on the evils of drinking, smoking and other vices; that afternoon, Sister Moon approached him and asked if perhaps had any dope because Brother Moon likes to smoke it? That night they both eagerly accepted a glass of wine and promptly lit up. Eventually they were asked to move on. They left without saying thanks but were later seen loitering on the beach.

7/3/99 - The Blue Lagoon

An hour's walk further along the track from Finca Verde is a tranquil lagoon. Riga, our host, gave us a lift there on his little 4-wheeled motorbike, "See you don't need roads" he said as we carved our own road over small hills and through streams. The place is so tranquil that words cannot describe it, so I won't. Go there. This little journey continues under Costa Rica: Following a Jungle Boy.

Copyright 2003 Lynette Chiang All Rights Reserved