Sailing into Laguna de Bluefield makes you feel like you’re shedding skin, extra weight you didn't know you were carrying. Something that's established itself back in Bocas Town is washed away, and that invisible layer that separates you as tourist from whomever has something to offer no longer clings to you like the inescapable humidity. You pass the last dive and tour boats at the Zapatilla Islands and continue on into the dark water that lies flat between the steep, forested hills of the Kusapin peninsula. Thatched roof houses appear here and there and two or three small villages sit quietly along the shore as you move deeper into the bay.
Though Bluefield is only about 20nm from Bocas, it took us three days to get there. We spent one day at Red Frog Beach, eating shrimp tacos and drinking margaritas in the rain, and another wandering around a cacao farm on Bastimentos before leading the boat through a narrow, winding gap (aptly called “The Gap”) that cuts a path through Cayo Nancy and deposits you into a maze of mangrove patches, vibrant green egg-shaped masses strewn across a haze of glimmering aquamarine. We arrive around lunchtime on our third day when there are few people around. Two children paddle past in their dugout canoe, or cayuco, staring. Approaching slowly in case of unmarked shallow spots, our engine deafens us to the sounds of life in the jungle around us until we anchor at the end of Bluefield and signs of normalcy – birds calling, dogs barking, someone hammering, palm fronds clacking in the wind – drift out to us.
Anxious to get to the beach, we head into town. Town is a few houses, a sparsely stocked store, and an empty school. We pay the woman at the store the fee that allows us to visit the community and leave our dinghy tied at the dock ($3/person/day) and follow the paved path up the hill into the jungle. It feels worlds away from Bocas. Bananas hang in reach, butterflies float past, what I assume is breadfruit dangles high above, water trickles from some unseen source, and a floral scent comes and goes as we follow the rise and fall of the path. After a few minutes we can hear the surf, and not long after that we are facing the shore, turquoise waves breaking upon the golden sand. Some friends from Bocas who've arrived on their sailboat the day before greet us. They’re taking a break from surfing, playing with the little kids who’ve become part of their crew. The kids harass you for your photos, posing momentarily with contorted faces, barely staying still long enough to capture an image before grabbing the camera to get a look at the screen and see how silly they look. There are a few adults around, some stopping to chat, others continuing on with their work. Cows sink up to their knees in the mud and wander near the houses behind us. At first glance it’s your typical tropical paradise – a deserted beach on some remote shore in the Caribbean. But more than that it’s front yard to the people who live here. You don’t get the sense that there’s anything exotic about it like you do from those stock postcard photos of palm trees hanging over the water. You experience instead that lived-in feeling, something that, at least for me, is a reminder of home.
Apparently we missed better waves that morning. The rip tide is strong now and the swell is dying a bit. After a short surf session, we make our way back, the seven of us forming a miniature army: surfboards under arms, flip flops smacking our heels, food on our minds. I ask Manuel, who is from Brasil but has spent more time in Panama than anyone I know, about the breadfruit (I’ve never seen it before). He says yes, it’s breadfruit, and as if to prove it picks one the size of a small soccerball off the ground – “the first of the season!” – and takes it with him. He then becomes our impromptu naturalist. This one looks like banana or maybe plantain, but is not. This is yucca, that’s cassava. That strange looking whitish-green fruit we saw on the beach was noni. It’s good as an antioxidant and for healing cuts and scrapes. As we come to the top of the last hill, a boy is selling fresh bread, small rounds that are sometimes referred to as Johnny Cakes, though I’ve also seen them called Journey Cakes. Anyway, they’re not the cornmeal Johnny Cakes we have in Rhode Island, but instead dense, doughy, oversized rolls with the faint flavor of coconut. We buy four at $0.25 a piece and continue on to the dock below where our dinghies are waiting in dark, glassy water.
The next morning I sit alone on the beach while Matt spends a few hours surfing. He paddles into the waves as the rip current sucks him out and down the beach, then makes his way back to the rideable break. Whoever'd been there yesterday has gone, and just as he has the waves to himself, I have the beach to myself. Unfortunately it isn’t a great day for lying on a blanket reading. Light rain showers continue while sunny patches try to break through for most of the morning. The current has stirred up the shallow water into wavelets and chop so it’s not really worth taking photos either.
Instead I stand on the beach in my bikini in the rain, pacing a bit, hoping to see a sloth. A few people pass now and then. I begin to feel a bit odd standing there in next to nothing as they pass by on their way to work, school, wherever, trudging through the wet sand in the high tide mark, over rocks, and through mud in long jeans or knee-length skirts.
Unlike Bocas Town, no one speaks English here. The people are Ngobe Indians; they speak their own language and Spanish. As it happens, I know just enough Spanish to present myself as someone who appears to be an adult but is mentally on the same level as a 4th grader. One man stops to check out my camera. Because I can’t say much in response (“Si!”) the conversation trails off, as usual. But he’s still standing next to me, so I examine what he’s carrying. To my surprise, it’s a radio. I point, say “Es un radio!” and smile. I’m smiling because I can’t believe that this man is actually walking along the beach with a radio, allowing me to utilize one of a handful of phrases I’d learned from Rosetta Stone word for word. Then I realize how silly I must seem, stating the obvious, smiling, and quite clearly not comprehending whatever it is he’s saying in response. He eventually asks me where I’m from and when I tell him Estados Unidos, it all seems to make sense. He continues on his walk behind some sea grapes and disappears around the bend.
Evenings in the bay are still, except for the dozens of cayucos coming and going silently through the water. Some carry whole families, some a single man or woman, some just a couple of giggly children. In the morning people seem to be on their way someplace, but now, as the sun is setting, the pace of travel is leisurely. People fish, or stop to sell bread or pipas, green coconuts filled with water. We hack one open and empty nearly a liter into a jar, a $5.00 expense back home. One boy just comes to look, grabbing hold of the toe rail and inspecting the boat intensely. A man tells us he’ll bring breadfruit and lobster (“panfruta y langosta”) in the morning and is also selling crafts his wife makes, woven net bags made from colorful plastic. Two boys selling bread are persistent. We still have some left from the day before but it’s hard to say no to these two. The older one is all business, a quick talker, and the younger, shyer one can’t stop smiling. The older boy tells us it’s veinticinco, twenty-five cents, and when we take a minute to decide he says less timidly, “a quahtah”. We cave and buy two.
Our last day we spend walking. The town of Kusapin is about 2.5 miles and to my surprise the path is partially paved, probably an unfinished Peace Corps project. The rest is mud, dirt and rock interspersed with short lengths of narrow beach where I’m tempted to stop and set up camp for the day. Our shoes are unnecessary in the mud, where they only get stuck, so we go barefoot like everyone else. I stop where fresh water pools collect as they cross the path to wash the dried mud away, but Matt doesn’t bother. We pass old women in gum boots hauling bags of produce on their backs, children with sacs of fish swinging at their sides, a boy sporting a bright blue Barcelona jersey holding his father’s hand, groups of women with machetes, several dogs, an elderly couple, the woman carrying a live chicken tucked under one arm and a bag of vegetables in the other. Hardly anyone speaks to one another. Most people say hello as we pass, but some women say nothing. Often children continue to wave and call “Hola!” long after we’ve gone by. One girl calls out from a window, smiling broadly, “Hola gringo! Hola gringa!” The attention we attract is so unlike that in Bocas, where interactions are limited to people offering to take you to one beach or another for a fixed amount or selling you overpriced cheeseburgers and smoothies.
We reach Kusapin just before lunch. It’s larger than I expected, but sleepy (it is Saturday morning). It’s sunny and hot and we are sticky with sweat when we stop to take a rest and a drink of water. Though the houses and buildings are rudimentary, the town is clean and there is something cheery about it. A sign warns: Take care of the water. Life depends on it! At the one restaurant we’d been told was there a man and boy are preparing for the day’s lunch. Kids are hanging out, wandering around in pairs. You get the sense that people take pride in making their community an enjoyable place to live.
It’s hard not to compare this place to Bocas or Carenero. There, trash is left to pile up and rot and it seems like most people spend most of their time catering to tourists’ wants and needs instead of investing in their own. We are still outsiders here. It’s obvious. But our status as tourists or visitors doesn’t give way to the type of impenetrable “us-them” constructs it does in Bocas. Having grown up in a tourist town, I am familiar with that kind of separation. There’s certain level of contempt reserved for tourists. There are certain areas of the beach where only tourists go. There are restaurants that everyone knows only tourists eat at. The word itself becomes irritating and adopts a negative tone. But at the same time many people’s livelihoods depend on those tourists. And oftentimes from the tourists' perspectives their experiences seems authentic. It’s not like by coming to Kusapin we’ve escaped being tourists. Much of travel is a fluctuation between feeling part of and apart from what it is you’re experiencing. It’s just that Kusapin is a place where tourism hasn’t become, and hopefully won’t become, an industry.
After a massive lunch of pulpo guisado (octopus stew) with patacones (fried plantains) and rice and beans, I want to take a nap in the sun. But we have the walk back ahead of us. Fortunately what was inches deep mud has now dried into clay after just a couple hours of beating sun, and the way back is much easier going. On the way out of town, a young guy, maybe 18, says nothing as we greet him. Then suddenly he shouts “HEY American boys!!! How’s it GOING?!?” Either I’m looking especially haggard or he’s not the star of his English class. Whatever the case, I’d much rather be an American boy in Kusapin than whoever I am back in Bocas.