Bocas del Toro: Michael 1997

Semana Santa, 1997. Holy week. I rolled into dusty little Sixaola at Costa Rica’s southeastern border with Panama Wednesday afternoon on what I had known to be one but turned out to be two flat tires. Having already replaced one, roadside, with the only spare a couple of hours back, this chalked up a total of three. I pulled into a little tire repair shop at the beginning of town. The owner was a kind, easy going gentlemen who quoted me $12 each to change the tires, and $6 total to park the vehicle there until my return from Bocas del Toro on Sunday.  There were few phones and Internet was pretty much non-existent in the area at the time. People just drove to Sixaola and found a place to park for a small fee.

Across the border, which consisted of a bridge over a river mouth, small guard hut, and two seat immigration shack was a large store with pretty much anything one would need, including tires. The owner of the taller (tie-yere, mechanic shop) sent his little boy along to carry the tires back. He was a wide eyed, polite and talkative young boy, probably in the range of 7-10 years old. When we reached the Panama side of the bridge, two guards stood duty making sure all were checked at the immigration shack before continuing. Apparently, the one and only immigration officer on duty was out on break. Eventually they returned and we continued to the store, bought the tires, and walked back to the bridge. Of course, the second we walked out of the store someone approached, asked my name, claimed he was also a Michael, and offered to take the tires across the river by boat and carry them to the taller for my young helper. For a fee of course, $5 or $10 or something. I declined, knowing I was well within the $500 per 6 month limit. Nevertheless, he continued to accompany. At the bridge, two guards stood in my path and politely gestured no, stating I could not bring the tires through. While they tried to tell me bringing goods across was not allowed, “Michael”, standing right there with us, assured me he would take them across the river by boat where “they would not see him.” I could not help but break a smile as I looked back the guards and asked them how I was to get my tires into Costa Rica then. They simply pointed to Michael, as if there was nothing odd about what had just been said. No finesse with these scoundrels.

Considering my surroundings, the debate was short and soft, simply stating the rules and asking why they would not allow it. A question they would not answer of course. I recognized the gig, thought one of them even bared a resemblance to “Michael,” and noticed a stream of little boats crossing the water below with all kinds of goods. I took my little helper aside and asked if he knew “Michael” and believed he would bring the tires, and he shook his head yes. I gave my helper the money, told him to take it to his father to give to Michael when he delivered the tires. The tires were worth more than the fee I was paying to have them visibly smuggled, so I was not overly confident they would make it (nor that my truck would even be there upon return for that matter).

Running short on time and not looking to turn back now, I hired a taxi to make up for lost time getting to the boat dock in Almirante. I was not aware of any boat schedule, but my driver apparently was and he kept the peddle down. The drive was scenic on paved road with indigenous homes dotting the hillsides. Arriving at the dock in Almirante, people were climbing on board the one and only boat. My taxi driver alerted them with yell and motioned for me to go. Within a few steps from the taxi I was swarmed with young, scantily clad barefoot children chattering and holding their hands out. The boat captain was waiving his arms to join them in the boat, so I did not stop, just held my bag a little higher and kept a hand by my pocket and continued to the boat.

The children followed right up to the boat. I opened my bag as I was sitting down, pulled out a carton of cookies and watched their eyes widen. I asked them if they would promise to share. Wide eyed and in unison they were all shaking their heads saying “si.” I handed the carton to a little boy in red shorts as the boat was pulling away and sat down before I fell down. The little boy and I retained eye contact for quite some time as the boat pulled away, to his right. Dirty faced, barefoot and squatting at the edge of the dock as far as his knees would bend he held a cookie in his right hand, eating it slowly and watching me with a somewhat blank, curious expression, as if not concerned with the others attacking the carton he held up for them with his left hand. If ever in my life there has ever been a moment where I wished to be a National Geographic photographer, this was it. The image has been clearly ingrained in my mind forever. If I were a talented artist I swear the painting would make the cover.

JT, long time expat, travel agent, and good friend in San José had been recommending for some time I visit Bocas del Toro, before it changed too much. Making reservations was not a typical practice in the region, and somewhat of a strange one to the locals. Bocas del Toro at the time had one hotel, and a couple of rooms could be found for rent on the main island of Colón. People just went and figured it out when they arrived, same as the parking in Sixaola. Being Samana Santa, the North American in me insisted on making a reservation a week in advance. JT had a number for a diving and snorkeling shop, owned by a Canadian woman, and the hotel, pretty much the only numbers available on the main island. Nobody ever answered at the hotel. Isaac, the go-to guy at the dive shop nabbed a girl from the hotel and I called back at an arranged time to confirm a reservation with her. “No problema” and I had her read back my name, dates, and a room number to make sure. Isaac extended an invitation to stop in the dive shop upon arrival for a beer and he would take me to the hotel.

Finally arriving at the island after a long day, I easily found the dive shop, met the owner and Isaac, thanked them for their assistance and asked what they offered in the way of snorkeling, etc. Isaac suggested I relax there for a moment and said he would go get the keys and take me to the hotel. A few minutes later he returned to inform me that (in typical fashion) the girl who took my reservation had gone to Panama City for the holiday, not informed her co-workers, and all rooms had been filled. He had a guy going around checking for an alternative room to rent. A few minutes later that gentleman, also barefoot, came in to say the “Island is full mon, no hay nada.” (There is nothing). I asked what the possibilities were back on the mainland. The owner told me I had caught the last boat for the day, there was no getting back tonight. They all looked at me as if waiting for the next move. I did not have one. I looked around and noticed the covered deck had a couple of empty hammocks overlooking the water. I looked back at Isaac and the owner and said “You mentioned come in for a beer on the phone. What’s a good Panamanian beer you recommend I try?” “Have and H&B” the owner replied almost simultaneously opening it. “Can I occupy a hammock for a bit and think about this?” I asked. “Sure, of course. Help yourself” she said.

I took my bag and my beer and crawled into the hammock, noting the sun would be setting very soon. I had no sleeping bag and had not come prepared to sleep on a beach or off a dusty path, but that may be my option. I wondered if I had a few beers and acted like I was asleep, if they would leave me to sleep in the hammock on deck overnight. Looking at the positive, I remember thinking at least now I would know how Gilligan felt.  :)

It was not long before I overhead a conversation at the counter behind me. An older woman had arrived earlier in the day and been walking the island looking for a place. With nothing to be found this was her last stop to ask for a room. The owner invited her to have a seat and relax a bit, saying “Let me see what I can do.” “Let me see what I can do?” How did this come about? And we wonder why the men typically die sooner . . . (All I am saying).

A few minutes later the owner came over to me and started with “OK . . .” Had I seen her coming I might have tried my asleep act, but too late. She continued with ” I live upstairs. There is another woman here who also has no place, so I have set up my room for her, and bed in the living room for you, if you do not mind sharing, for $8 night. How does that sound?” This was very generous, but I did not want to put anybody of their home and asked about her. She owned the sailboat anchored in my view just a short distance from the deck and said she doesn’t mind sleeping in it, she enjoys it sometimes.

It was now dark and she told me of a restaurant on a neighboring island with fresh lobster dinner for $4.50. I asked how to get there and she turned on a light and waved it. The island across did the same, and a moment later a little boat pulled up out of nowhere in the dark. I crawled in and we zoomed off for the other island. The driver stood at the back of the boat steering the outboard motor with the handle between his calves. Boats passed us on both sides in the dark, none of which had a light or even a visible reflector, including ours. The restaurant was a little open air spot with a serve yourself cooler for drinks (no sign, you had to figure that one out). I asked the woman behind the counter who was cooking what they had. “Lobster. French fry. $4.50″ she stated abruptly. Looking to balance out the health meter considering the beer, I proceeded to ask what else was available with it, like salad or vegetables. She looked right into my eyes and very sternly repeated, with emphasis on each word, “Lobster. French fry. $4.50.” . . .  ”I’ll have the lobster and french fries please.”

The woman sharing the upstairs residence was a real joy to meet and talk with. She was a retired teacher from Nice, and on a quest to see as many islands of the world as she could before her husband retired. Her husband was a cargo ship captain and spent months at a time out to sea. Being away from home most of his life, he was looking forward to staying home and working around the house and garden once retired. So while he was out to sea, she was off to see. She had been seemingly everywhere. I had a lot of questions and she enjoyed describing her destinations as much as I enjoyed listening to and envisioning them. Normally I do not choose favorites nor ask others to, but I am sure I asked her for some of her favorite islands or those she most enjoyed. The conversation lasted a few hours and I do not recall now all of the islands she had visited, but for some reason the chain that stuck in my mind and has been on my list to this day is the Maldives. And it seems every couple of years or so I receive a reminder of some sort, like National Geographic’s Pictures: Now or Never? 9 Places to see before they slip away  or NBC News 10 Natural Wonders to see before they disappear. More than once with my former employer I was being lined up to go to India for a month, but it never materialized. Had I, the Maldives would have been checked off my list, just as they were for a friend and coworker.

Thursday morning I secured a spot on the catamaran for Friday snorkeling with a group of divers from France Isaac was taking out. I then went to the one and only grocery type store, bought a few snack items, some water, and rented a bike. An appreciated honest store owner suggested a half day bike rental for for a couple of dollars, rather than a full day for a few more that I was initially intending. The dirt roads were rough, the bike seats were hard, there were not that many places to go, and if your personal “seat” was not that of a toughened rider’s, a few hours may be enough. He was right. Going around the island I found the gold sand beach JT had told me about. Scenic but the waves were pounding hard and the undertow very strong. Back in the town a few hours later I returned the bike, thanked him for his honesty and bought a new bottle of sunscreen (Bayer, spf 30 – did not know Bayer even made sunscreen), and insect repellent. Some time during the the night before I had been awakened with burning welts around my ankles, being devoured by something I could not see!

Thursday night after a spectacular lobster dinner in a special paprika sauce at a nearby restaurant I retired to the room for more conversation. I was quite sore in uncomfortable places from the bike ride and getting up early for the catamaran trip. I covered my ankles, wrists, etc. with a good dose of insect repellent before lying down. Again, I woke up with a burning around my ankles and giant welts. It was if the insect repellent only provided a little seasoning and the culprits from last night returned with friends, and hit all at once. Something I had never heard of nor experienced before but will never forget: No-see-ums. Insects too small to see with a big mouth full of razor sharp teeth that presumable rival that of a Great White shark (must be an ancestral relationship).

Friday snorkeling and catamaran trip was ok. Isaac also drove standing up with handle between his calves. Talk about balance. Went through the entire bottle of Bayer sunscreen with repeated applications and still endured the worst sunburn of my life. Back on the island Friday evening (Good Friday), virtually everything was closed. No store. No restaurant. Nada. Resembling the lobsters I had eaten the nights before and eating peanuts or something, Isaac came to me and said he had a cooler with food and beer left over from the catamaran. I clearly recall his reply to my “You serious?” He said “Isaac only speak serious mon.” Another day saved, sort of.

After enduring yet another night of no-see-ums despite nearly as much repellent as sunscreen, I don’t recall too much of Saturday, the last day spent in Bocas del Toro. Severely burnt and sore however I am sure it involved covered areas, shade, and certainly no bike rental. I do remember a little juice bar next door that had the sweetest pineapple. Blended with water, no sugar added, it really hit the spot.

Back in Sixaola on Sunday I felt like I was walking through the set of an old spaghetti western. Hot, dry, dusty, with men lazing around in chairs under the shade of an overhang. People watching me walk through town like the new stranger in one of the movies. I wasn’t the only gringo walking through town carrying a bag, but probably the only one that red with split lips (Eventually I broke out in a rash and had deep, bleeding slits across my forehead from the sunburn). Truck was sitting right inside the fence at the taller, and the owner was there. $30 total for tire mounting, balancing, and parking, just as I had been told. It momentarily occurred to me it might have been a good idea to buy three tires . . . I now had four good tires on the truck, but no spare and had to return via the same road I had came. Sunday, and one of the most significant holiday weekends in the country. I did not want to give much energy to that thought. My sense of adventure had been temporarily dampened. All I wanted was an uneventful drive back home to Escazú.

My wish was granted.

(To see what a contrast 15 years can make, read Bocas del Toro: Miha 2012, complete with numerous photos)




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