I'm so thrilled to see my first feature article in print! Check it out in the January issue of Blue Water Sailing, or take a quick glance below. I'll be dreaming about Pisco Sours while we sand the hull (for the final time!) this afternoon.
After rounding Punta Mala we spent a few nights on the Peninsula de Azuero and bumped into friends we’d met back in Escudo de Veraguas. Barney and his family were traveling the same route and schedule as us and we spent a couple nights in a calm bay on the southwestern side of Isla Cebaco together. Barney has sailed all over the world, his wife, Mel, is a fantastic cook, and their daughter, Faa, is a well-traveled and experienced dive instructor – way more mature and accomplished than I was at 18-years-old.
Mel and I were lamenting the lack of fresh herbs in Panama; we’d both been trying to grow some on board, neither of us with much success. She’d bought a bunch of what she thought were jalapeños but what turned out to be teeny sweet peppers so I gave her half the bag of habaneros I’d bought in Panama City. The next day she shouted over to me as I passed in the dinghy. “I have your peppers!” I was a bit confused. I told her they were hers to keep, I hadn’t lent them to her for the night. But she waved me over and tossed me a small jar. Homemade hot sauce! And Mel is from Thailand, so her hot sauce is proper hot. During our time in Cebaco she also gave us a recipe for Matt’s favorite Thai dish, three-flavor fish (which I promptly forgot because I was busy eating her spicy chicken with pineapple) and a packet of spices for Laab, or meat salad (ie: the best kind of salad). She also makes a mean fish cake, which I’ve since been trying to recreate on Tamata.
Besides the food and story swapping, there were two other constants during our time in Cebaco Bay: a steady northeasterly wind racing through the gap between hills, and a big, black barge moored in the southeast corner. The barge was seemingly there permanently, but surrounding it on smaller mooring balls was a pod of baby-blue-hulled, black-tinted-window motor boats that were kept immaculately clean when they weren’t buzzing in and out of the bay. I sort of just assumed it was a drug-running operation until I remembered that we were only 35 miles from Hannibal Bank, a legendary Central American fishing spot where the Pacific rises sharply from 1300 meters to just 17, attracting tuna, sailfish, marlin, wahoo and other pelagic fish.
This was Cebaco Bay Fishing Club, an understated fishing “lodge” where guests could fish all day and return to drink cold Balboas and grill their catch on a big barbecue on the barge’s deck in solitude, accompanied only by the roars of howler monkeys and the slapping of baitfish on the surface of the bay’s prairie flat water. No gourmet restaurant. No infinity pool. No masseuse. Just fishing and beer. (Which I realize is about as redundant as saying “just skiing and snow!”) Anyway, we learned that you could buy ice and diesel and that the hose leading from the nearby rocks on shore was transporting fresh water from the island’s natural spring for drinking, laundry, showers, and washing down the boat.
Jose, the manager, was a quiet guy with a shy smile. There were no guests at the time, so he showed us around the boat. He also loaded us up with ice and scheduled a time for us to come alongside and fill up with very expensive diesel. The covered deck was inviting and offered a few minutes of refuge from the wind. Apparently the Panamanian Aeronaval thought so, too. Eight of them arrived on their black speedboat in full camo the next day and spent the afternoon listening to music, napping in the hammock and playing dominos in the shade. Josh and Kim arrived on Kuhela that day, too, and the four of us enjoyed fresh fish for dinner each of our remaining nights there.
I know I keep talking about how great the places we visit are, but really, we had it pretty good in Cebaco Bay. If the surf hadn’t picked up at Santa Catalina over on the mainland, we likely would have stayed put. But it did. So we didn’t.
We said goodbye to Bastimentos early on a Friday morning, spent the night in a beautiful, deep anchorage near Kusapin called Playa Raya, and set out the next morning for a place we'd been looking forward to visiting since we began planning for Panama back in Newport. With dying winds and diminishing swell we timed our arrival at the island of Escudo de Veraguas perfectly. There is no well-protected anchorage there, so although the island is only 12nm from the mainland spending time there can be rather uncomfortable. Even if there’s little or no swell, there is nowhere to hide from the wind. We learned that the first rolly night, but by midmorning the next day the sea was glassy and clear and the next three days were unbelievably perfect.
The island is awesome, in the true sense of the word. As we rounded each new bend the scenery seemed more and more unreal. We spent all day exploring the extensive barrier reefs, puttering through the many lagoons and inlets, spear fishing, snorkeling and searching for low hanging coconuts. The north side of the island was all Caribbean blue with white sand beaches tucked between lush green outcroppings and mangrove islands. The south side felt like something out of the reptile exhibit at the zoo – smooth rock walls dipping into deep teal water, tree trunks, vines and foliage rising from the tops of cliffs, creating a not-so-inviting entrance to the dark black jungle behind.
Escudo is the only remaining place in the world where the pygmy three-toed sloth lives. It’s hard to know exactly how many are left – counts have ranged between 40 and 100 – but the consensus is: dangerously few. I was hopeful that we’d spot one (though Matt was skeptical) so I spent the whole first day with my neck craned up, searching the canopy and high branches that hung over the water for any sign of fur. But there was more to be seen underwater and as the evening set in we enjoyed freshly speared fish and a full sky of stars overhead.
The next morning, we were cruising in the dinghy through some of the lagoons where we’d found orchids, bonefish, and tons of horseflies but no sloths. At one point, just after we’d shut the engine off the get over a shallow spot, I caught sight of something that didn’t look quite like the other branches of the red mangrove tree nearest us. We were totally shocked to be just feet away from a miniature sized sloth with three severe looking claws. His body was a self-supporting hammock and he seemed to have a smile on his face. We felt bad for waking him with the snapping of our lenses but he just opened his eyes slowly, checked us out, and went back to sleep. We went back the next day and found him in the same exact spot. I’ve been told (by a semi-reliable source) that even if a sloth drops its baby it won’t come down from the tree to rescue it. That could be one reason that they’re so extremely endangered; I can’t imagine that an island bound sloth has many predators.
We caught sight of white sails as we made our way back to the anchorage and raced over in the dinghy to greet our friends Josh, Kim and Thor. On our sail over from the mainland we’d snagged a huge wahoo, which I’d been marinating in a vinegary escabeche sauce for a couple days. We shared what was only a small portion of the fish but was tons for the five of us and we raved about how cool our time on the island had already been. Josh is the only person who might be more excited about spear fishing than Matt, and the two of them were frothing about getting in the water first thing the next morning.
That’s pretty much how our days went at Veraguas. We’d wake up, pack up the dinghy with fins, masks, snorkels, spear guns, lunch, cameras, and set out for the day. In the afternoon, we’d grab a beer and cruise along in the shadowy south side of the island until the sun started to set, then head back to the boat, cook up some fish, and pass out early, exhausted from the long day in the sun. I really don’t think we could have planned for better conditions. I also spent my birthday there, which happened to be the day I speared my first fish (first shot too!). We delayed leaving as long as we could, but needed to meet my brother and his girlfriend, who were flying into Panama City from Rhode Island. With them coming, we weren’t as bummed out about heading to Colon we might otherwise have been. But it wasn’t easy sailing away from Escudo de Veraguas, knowing we’d likely never get to see it like that again.
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.
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.