Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Bocas del Toro, Panama

Bocas del Toro was a welcome culture shock following our stay in Kuna Yala. Another archipelago of islands, less than a mile off the western Caribbean coast of Panama, Bocas del Toro is more lagoon-like with an extensive maze of mangrove coves. After 6 months of being cut off from civilization as we know it, our solitude was broken. Maybe our creativity suffered as a result of having a plethora of options. Suddenly we had grocery stores, hardware stores, book stores and movie rentals. We had just about every type of food restaurant you could think of from Mexican to Lebanese. Our brains went into hibernate mode, as we no longer had to jury-rig things on the boat, or find yet more ways to cook with tuna.

Bocas del Toro is teeming with ex-pat, Hawaiian shirt wearing, guitar playing, Jimmy Buffet loving retirees, young American and European backpackers, serious surfers and a huge native population including many indigenous tribes. While still laid back compared to many parts of the Caribbean, there is a lot going on in Bocas if you surf, dive and party. Bocas can be a dead end, though, and many boats and crew “just passing through,” can still be found here a year later.

In our year and a half of bouncing around the Caribbean, we’ve learned that just because you own a sailboat, doesn’t mean you sail it. Individuals who comprise the sailing community are as diverse as any other in terms of goals, budget, lifestyle preferences, and comfort zones.

Our stage in life and pre-retirement budget is straightforward and as far as life style preferences go, those on a more open-ended plan, naturally crave more creature comforts to make life more enjoyable and some cases, even bearable. But amenities aside, it’s easy to get drawn in by the familiar and all that encompasses the cruising community. The social scene, the boat talk and boat maintenance that will never end, the potlucks and happy hours where you can go on sharing information and making plans forever, but soon forget how to sail your boat.

While the cruising community can be a source of support and valuable information, in some cases, naysayers will scare each other silly about potential passages and destinations. In these instances, misery loves company, and boaters have unnecessarily altered course before giving themselves a fair chance. Before we left the San Blas for Bocas del Toro (about 240 miles), a cruiser said to us “whoa, we wouldn’t want to take that passage right now…good luck.” Stephen and I looked at each other perplexed, as we had perfect conditions (winds and currents) and had a gorgeous passage with good winds, fair seas, pods of dolphins, and a lunar eclipse to boot. Hmm…no wonder this couple had been going on four years in San Blas. If these conditions were not ideal for them, there’s no way out of there.

Reaching beyond our comfort zones to accept the adventure, the consequences of stepping out into the unknown, of accepting the full spectrum of risks and rewards, of discomfort as well as elation, is perhaps the greatest challenge for most, myself included. A lot of things can happen to you and your boat, in both the physical and emotional sense. It will expose your strengths and your weaknesses, and it will definitely change you - all very scary propositions. To know your limitations is a good thing, but only if you’ve dared to reach them. It’s my observation and belief that most people made great sacrafices to dare to venture out aboard their vessel. They’re each seeking their own adventure, and some have found it while others have lost their way. One bad storm at sea is enough to shake your foundation.

But living a life on land can be equally filled with risk. Naturally, where there are more people, there are also more traffic accidents, communicable diseases, risk of food and water contamination, incidents of crime, and even weather-related disasters. But somehow this thought fails to register a blip on our cautionary radar, because either we’re familiar with these circumstances or haven’t had personal encounters of our own. Driving a vehicle is within our competency. We can wash our hands and sanitize incessantly, filter our drinking water, install security systems and carry pepper spray, and in the event of a tornado, we might just be screwed.

I often think about the horrible tragedy that happened on Ridge Ave. in my hometown of McSherrystown, not so long ago. A man who was watching TV in the comfort of his recliner, was suddenly bulldozed through the walls of his own home and into the backyard by a car that came crashing through his living room. He was in dire condition for a long time, but thankfully managed to pull through. This event was unbelievable and confusing to anyone who has grown up in such a steadfast and safe community to live in. The fact that something so inconceivable happened in McSherrystown, caused me and many others to rethink our notion of security, and how we would come to define it in changing times.

Metaphorically, I think we wear our life preservers and do our best to insulate ourselves from the dangerous unknowns, but life remains filled with unexpected occurrences. And sometimes the unexpected or long dreaded event happens anyway. And so we deploy our life raft and keep on surviving. We could lose our life waiting at the dock, or watch it pass us by at the very least.

While I stand on my soap box, I admit that I’m of the anxious ilk and have spent countless hours of my life trying to control things that I conjure up from my very active and often foreboding imagination. Stephen giggles, shakes his head and pulls me back into the present moment, for it is here in which the future is created. And as Tom Petty sings, “most things I worry about, never happen anyway.”

I admire Stephen for his courage in facing those things that aren’t within our control, with not wasting time in fooling himself into thinking he can prevent them, and instead placing well spent effort in fully equipping himself for things he can. In his home town of Strong Island, they call it “having balls,” and if it weren’t for him and his big balls, I wouldn’t have attempted something like this on my own. Some might view this as a negative thing, “dragging Taryn across treacherous oceans.” But this man has opened my world to things I had never experienced or considered. And in approaching these adventures together, I’ve learned to trust him with my life. Stepping out into the unknown with his support has enabled us to know ourselves better.

As others venture out to do the same, perhaps some have come to realize this wasn’t the adventure they wanted, an equally valuable experience, except when they feel stuck. Then it’s a dangerous recipe for stagnation. Aside from three storey tall waves, that ugly word is my greatest fear, and the best way to avoid it is to keep moving. Upon arriving in Bocas, a nice man greeted us with the following words…“Welcome to the Hotel California…haven’t you heard, everyone ends up staying here longer than they planned.” “That’s nice,” we said with a smile, as we privately vowed to each other that we didn’t make it this far to get cozy now.

Once we escaped early morning from the marina (after settling up our bill of course), we set our sights on less traveled islands within the Bocas chain. Our first stop was Isla Popa II (there’s a number I and II), which is home to the Ngobe Bugle, another indigenous tribe of Panama. We found this tribe especially friendly and hospitable. We were anchored in a beautiful mangrove-enclosed lagoon on the edge of the hillsides on which they had built their community.

The setting was a maze of mangrove that shone emerald green in the light of dusk or dawn. We were tucked up into a mangrove cove that bordered the edge of a forest, packed with tall, skinny, limbless trees that reached the same heights where they suddenly fanned out to form a dense canopy. The break in the forest revealed rolling hills dotted with complex huts and palm trees.

It wasn't long after we anchored, that a man paddling from across inlet offered us lobster for a fair price before returning to the village. The next morning, a lady who paddled up with her family in the rain, invited us to come ashore to see their community. Comparing our experience to the Kuna of San Blas, we were pleasantly surprised, as it was a rare invitation we would receive from the Kuna, generally suspicious of visitors.

The children, too innocent to doubt the good intentions of people, greeted us just as sweetly as the Kuna. I instantly made a little friend before being officially welcomed by a fellow American. What a surprise! Kate Douglass, from Virginia, was on assignment with the Peace Corps, and only five months into her two year commitment. She has been working on a number of large tasks, teaching English, assisting the women in forming a cooperative and finding ways to generate tourism. She was impressed that we were formally invited by a woman she had known to be quite shy.

It just happened that Kate’s mother and a friend were visiting, and awaiting an official tour of the community. So we walked and talked together, Kate being very informative and obviously passionate about the Ngobe Bugle and their culture.

The children adore Kate and instantly trusted anyone that was with her. A few little boys especially fond of the ladies, held our hands for the entire tour. When we came upon a hiabicus tree, the youngest boy clad in a white onesie pajama, picked flowers for all of the ladies.

The tour began in the community hall, an open air structure where all major celebrations, including school graduations take place. Kate showed us the typical crops and vegetation: cocoa (above, root veggies like yucca, and bananas and platanos that are picked far before they are ready. Stephen and I have wondered why the local tribes are not able to grow tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables with so much rainfall and such hillsides. The locals have simply explained that the “earth” is no bueno (no good) for growing it, and without having a better aptitude for speaking the language, we haven’t been able to question it further.

Kate discussed family arrangements where large families live together under one roof, and often just one or two rooms. Stephen and I have become used to people from the indigenous communities paddling right up to our boats without saying a word and just peeking in until we notice them. Sometimes they’ll grab things right off of the boat, not to take them but to examine them and question them. Quite alarming at first, we understand that the major cultural differences in terms of personal space, property and boundaries. They have no privacy. They’re used to sharing among and between other households, so that don’t have attachments to things the way we do – so friendly curiosity is easily mistaken for disrespect.

As we passed a home in the village, Kate shared that one of the eldest sons was moving out from under his mother’s roof, and the beginnings of a dwelling that seemed to be just feet from the homestead was his new home. We giggled for a while at this interpretation of independence.

While there is a rotation of Panamanian teachers that stay for brief periods in the village, Kate lives with the Ngobe full time. She showed us the house that she lives in and the wooden, open range for cooking on the front porch. It was here that the boys also charmed us with a traditional dance they had just learned.

Kate talked about the water supply and pointed out the huge tubs in which families catch rain water for bathing, washing, drinking – everything. While this community seems to be thriving, parasites and waterborne illnesses remains a problem among indigenous populations.

We ended the tour inside her classroom, where she and local teachers recently painted an impressive mural of a very colorful and accurate world map across the wall. Seeing her posed in front of it was symbolic of the ways in which individuals like her dare to extend themselves far and wide to shape this big Earth into a global community.

The difference she’s made was evident in the cooperative, where the women have been empowered to organize and run their own business. They sell the traditional clothing, crafts and jewelry: handbags, skirts, hair bands, bracelets and necklaces. Attached to each, is a tag with a price and the name of the artist, so that the money is set aside for them. In some cases, no artist is mentioned and the money goes to the cooperative.

We were used to paying $5 to the Kuna of San Blas for simply anchoring near their island but were always disappointed when the Kuna weren’t interested in showing us their village or telling us something about their way of life. Perhaps they were at one time, but since they have been inundated with tourists and yachties, a piece of that pride has been lost in a new money based economy. We were pleasantly surprised and impressed with the initiative and authenticity of the Ngobe of Popa II. We travel to admire the Earth and to take in the fullness of its beauty. In the absence of cultural diversity, the aesthetics of your surroundings quickly lose their luster and the experience takes on a superficial quality. The kindness of the Ngobe truly enhanced the landscape, and I hope that they are able to generate more tourism, reaping more of the benefits than the ill effects of increased exposure.

The Zapatilla Cays lie in the outermost part of the chain, before re-entering open sea. It consists of two islands, dedicated as national marine park. Although we didn’t go snorkeling, we were later told that the reefs are teeming with lobsters, rays and large fish that are overhunted elsewhere.

We preferred Zapatilla II, more abundant with thick groves of palm trees, where columns of hearty green, Dr. Seuss-like plants grow all along the length of the trunk. Far less tourists are brought to this island even though there is a well-maintained trail that leads to the windward shore. We loved this part sand, part boardwalk trail that wound through a surprisingly swampy center. At last we had an expanse of land to run on when we weren’t hanging our hammocks in a desolate patch of palm trees.

We had the occasional visitor from the family living on the anchorage side of the island. First, the youngest boy (no older than 5), was being extremely helpful and offering to help Stephen drag the dinghy up on shore. He always ran out to say hello, and eventually his father came out to meet us too. On the second afternoon, Stephen brought his drum onshore, and soon we were being followed by a curious older brother (about 7) donning nothing but his underpants and a machete almost as tall as him. He shyly tailed us at a close distance until we turned around to greet him and Stephen invited him to learn how to play the drum.

This little boy was like a sponge, captivated by our every word and movement. Proud of his machete, he taught us how to say “chopiando,” (his word to describe cutting or chopping the undergrowth) and he picked up several English words from us. As it was getting late, we had to coax him to go home for dinner. As I hugged him goodbye, Stephen said, “Careful Taryn, you’re going to get yourself killed,” laughing at the absurdity of me injuring myself while embracing a harmless little boy toting his dangerous tool as if it were his favorite teddy bear.

The island had a few inhabitants that consisted of a few families of one of the local indigenous tribes and a handful of rangers stationed on both shores. Still, we enjoyed endless privacy and had the beach to ourselves at night. One evening, we set up for sunset in the shadiest part of the trail, where the sun went down between thick-trunked trees with gnarly roots that twisted into animated patterns. A perfect mirror image of the forest was reflected in the still swamp waters below the pier.

We were anchored in Zapatilla just after a full moon, and as the sun faded, watched it rise over the tops of the palm trees behind us. This was a first for us, as usually the beach is too buggy to remain even before the sun is setting. But for some reason, maybe the temperature or the breeze, the bugs were kept at bay. The palm fronds swaying in the first light of the moon is lovely, and something to be admired fully in the brief hour that it lasts. As the moon’s light sweeps the beach, the sand is a brilliant white and the water a pale green through which you can see clear to the bottom – to the continuous ridges of sand that have formed without human feet to disturb them.

Our favorite anchorages were off of Isla Bastimentos, where you have a little bit of development, a little bit of rainforest, some local flavor and a lot of gorgeous beach. The Red Frog Beach resort was a new project when we were here 5 years ago, and like every other story lately, it all but tanked when the investors lost their money. It has since been sold and development of these "Florida-like" condos continues, but not without controversy. Initially there was a lot of concern for the endemic species of red frog that inhabits the island. You can still spot an occasional little red frog jumping along the beach, but they are being handled by tourists -probably not good. Most of them have migrated further into the rain forest.

I liked the red frog beach resort only for the yoga classes. It was nice to balance on one leg on solid ground for a change. Most of the controversy surrounding this project is over the lack of consideration for the environment in terms of waste management, fresh water contamination, depletion of rainforest and non-sustainability. When trees are cut down, sloths like this little guy above run out of trees to forage and sleep in.

There is a noticeable difference between establishments that make good use of the natural environment and those that don't. Our favorite example is the the Thai restaurant "Up on the hill" that sits high in the canopy. It is tucked into the rainforest, its structure built around the natural topography - the front supported by stilts. Wildlife abounds and the restaurant relies on the filtered rain water it collects to keep turning out plates. So when there is a shortage of rain, the restaurant is closed for business. The unreliability might be too frustrating for most, but each time we were able to get a reservation, it became a special event - perhaps more appreciated.

Aside from the Red Frog Resort & Marina, there is Bocas Bound - the nicest hostel I have ever seen. We were finally "plugged in" again, with a great Internet connection, cheap meals, cold beers and a "help yourself" supply of endless coffee. The rooms looked really nice for just 12 a night, and there was a huge, open air great room with hammocks, computer stations, TVs, and a bar. When we had our fill of connectivity, we hiked a trail or escaped to Turtle Beach - the one that is less traveled by tourists. This beach, adjacent to "Red Frog Beach" but walled off by massive boulders, was covered with sea grape trees that reached to the edge of the water.

One day, Stephen hung a hammock from one of these bowing limbs. Hovering just above the water, it was the perfect setup and apparently two backpackers thought so. I sat on the embankment watching Stephen duck under waves and these two guys that stopped to take pictures of our hammock. Once they noticed me sitting there, they asked for permission to pose inside of it. As they lay awkwardly in the hammock, it occurred to me that relaxation is an art to be mastered.

Speaking of art...above is an impromptu sculpture made by Charlie, owner of Fin Art in Fells Point, Baltimore. We jmetCharlie and Cherise, from Maryland when we went ashore for happy hour on Isla Bastimentos. They had been backpacking Central America for a few months and just happened to be in Bocas del Toro, and more specifically - on Bastimentos at the same time as us. And as small worlds go, they were friends of a social worker I once worked with back in Baltimore. For the next few days, we went to the beach, had drinks and dinner with Charlie, Cherise and another couple they had met from Denmark. Charlie made this out of wood and things that had washed up on shore. He is an amazing artist who paints public murals and other installations, usually featuring fish or a nautical theme. Cherise calls him the fish whisperer, as he has an exceptional understanding of all kinds of fish and their nature. While in Bocas, he caught a fish a commercial fisherman said was not possible to find in those waters.