Bocas del Toro is a place of contrast and interruption. Almost every day the beating sun is temporarily eclipsed by sudden downpours, or the other way around. The soft sounds of wind, waves and the occasional bird are interrupted each morning by the blaring descent of incoming jets, only a couple hundred feet overhead, and by the criss-crossing of pangas (water taxis) throughout the day and well into the evening. Locals sell fruit and crafts in the afternoon heat while groups of backpackers in search of all day breakfast pass by. The vegetation is lush and the houses cheerfully painted, but waste and garbage congregate along the shoreline and pile up beneath the houses of the local villages. Children walk barefoot through the fetid mud and trash. Only a few hundred feet down the path, the grounds of rental houses and hostels are strewn with surfboards and lounge chairs, and barefoot girls in their bikinis lazily sip pina coladas and daquiris on the porches of waterfront restaurants.
We've been here nearly two weeks and we're beginning to be able to navigate our way through some of these contrasts and see Bocas through a more finely filtered lens. Though many of the restaurants on the waterfront in Bocas Town have nearly identical appearances and menus, we've learned which ones are worth stopping at (few) and which ones will disappoint (most). We don't try to make a run for it when there seems to be a break in the rain - looks can be deceiving. We buy bread from the shy little girl who brings it from her house behind the marina down to the dock every few days instead of the loaves that mysteriously last weeks on end from the grocery store. It's $1.50 for five big rolls here on the dock, and they're usually still warm. We pass on the vivaciousness of the crowd, where travelers meet and exchange stories and tips and phone numbers and questions ("How long have you been traveling?" "What's your destination?"), and seek rather the intimacy of more ordinary conversation, where questions are more mundane ("What is your dog's name?" "How did you break your wrist?"). Sometimes it's nice to just talk about the weather. To just be here.
I don't want to imply that we're somehow being exposed to some hidden side of Panama, or that the only authentic way to experience Bocas is to stay away from fellow travelers or do as the locals do. We're tourists, too, and we're only just beginning to distinguish between the things and places that add real value to our daily lives here and the things that we can happily do without. I recently read an article by a journalist who was traveling in Sao Paulo. He wrote:
"Tourists are immigrants who audit. We feel the dislocation yet bear none of the responsibility. We pick up a few words; we don't abandon our mother tongue. We come for the enticements but we don't stay for the test.
Our fleetingness deprives us of depth but rewards us with intensity." (Thomas Swick, "Faces in a Crowd")
We have no intention of becoming immigrants here, but I guess we're beginning to sacrifice some of the intensity we first experienced for a greater serving of depth.