Soooo that week did end up being pretty good. Anna's brother and his girlfriend came for a nice dinner with Tita, I went out with a group from school one night, I did decently on my final, and I made it to all but one of my Skype dates (sorry, Leah!!!!!).
Still, the weekend was even better!
A friend--Sharifa--and I went to Bocas del Toro on the Caribbean side of Panama, and it was my favorite place yet! There were sooooo many interesting things about it, I don't know how I'll be able to describe them all! I hope you can soooort of see how cool it was from my descriptions, though!
To begin with, in order to get to Panama at the Sixaola border bridge where we crossed, you have to be ready to go over the line by 5 pm. Since it is a 5+ hour drive from the San José bus-stop and we have class until 12 in the afternoon, you can see how it really couldn't be done in a day. For this we decided going on a three day weekend, leaving that Friday afternoon and staying in Puerto Viejo again, would be the best bet.
Commence good omen number one. Following a slightly uncomfortable discussion with Rebecca Dos about the, er, "non-clicking" we had between us, there was a newfound simplicity and understanding to our relationship that really made the Puerto Viejo trip more enjoyable than I might have hoped. She decided she would not accompany us to Panama, rather stay in Puerto Viejo and go to other nearby beaches and jungles by herself. I worried a bit about this, but following our night in the town, and recalling her longing for independence she'd expressed earlier anyway, I decided it wasn't so bad. And it ended up not being--she had a great time, and if I'm completely honest, I think I was able to appreciate Bocas much more being without her.
If you recall, the last time we went to Puerto Viejo it rained all the livelong day. We didn't go out at night because it was pouring too much. This time was the opposite. There were tons of stars, and we didn't stay in the cool hostel, so we were lucky to not have the rain--otherwise there'd have been nothing to do at all. Instead we walked around, got some pizza, tried the weird Costa Rican tradition of mixing beer with Sprite, and got Sharifa a hair wrap from another Rasta woman and her friend. A little later we found some ice cream, went dancing briefly, and turned in by about 11:15, since the bus to Sixaola, the border, was to leave at 6 am the next day (actually left at 6:30, we were confused...I'm just writing that so that if anyone tries to go there, they don't have the same frustration :)).
The next morning we watched the weird buzzard things hop around like dinosaurs, complete owners of the land, and waited for the bus with the ocean wooshing in and out about 30 feet behind us. I got a video, but it's a little less creepy on the screen than in real life. Anyway, our bus arrived, and we settled in, not having eaten any breakfast, for we'd cross the border in an hour and a half, we thought, and everything is cheaper in Panama. We opened the windows since it was already hot, and I realized that Costa Rica smells just like New York where my granparents live. It has the same humidity, the same ocassional scent of water on a summer road, and even very rarely a wafting of horse smells. That was a nice sentiment to have occur as I watched the palm trees and banana plantations go bye at 40 km per hour. Interesting, too, since I was bearing in mind these same grandparents had lived in Panama at one point of their lives. (Yes, Joel, we know you did, too. I'm sure you'll recognize some of the things in the pictures.)
Well the bridge that is the border was a little surprising. It was a one-lane old thing made of wooden planks and a train track, with a narrow sidewalk running down half of one-side of it, guarded by a rusting chain-link fence that now curls away from the planks, bending in an "I've served my duty, let me just lie down, now," kind of way. When we asked the guard to take our picture crossing it, he obliged after hesitating, pointed the camera toward himself at first, then finally asked how to use it. We ended up with a picture cutting off almost half of our heads but including almost to our toes, but I didn't want to embarrass him by asking him to try for a better one. No importa.
When we got to the other side of this crazy old adrenaline rush, we learned it is hot in Panamá. By this time it was nearly 8 and we had 4 lines to stand in with the rest of the people from the bus--customs, I guess, visa-line, visa-approval line, and bus back to San José line. From there we waited half an hour in an unairconditioned car for the taxi to fill up, then drove 40 minutes to the place where a water taxi would take us to the main island of Bocas del Toro. It was a long trip, and I was parched and hungry by the time we arrived at 11:30 or so, but really? Vale la pena!
Bocas del Toro is a group of, I believe, four islands in the Caribbean Sea. We had been told to stay at a really cool hostel called the AquaLounge, which is just across from the main island that is officially called "Bocas." It was going to cost us a dollar to catch a boat from where we were to the AquaLounge, but as we were talking to the man driving the boat, he mentioned there was a festival going on at a different island. We were a little intrigued, and when he said he knew of a hotel on that island that would have a private bath, no bugs, and cost less, we were for sure interested. We decided to come back to the AquaLounge for the nighttime activities and hang out with the others from Veritas, but not stay with all the sunflies that make the people who stay there look like they have chicken pox all over their legs.
So we went to the island, Bastimento it's called, and it was definitely the best decision ever! It's my favorite place so far, I may have already said that. Where to begin!?!
Well, being on the Carribbean, it's not a super surprise that the entire place was Rasta. Everyone had dreads, everyone was black, and all the houses were painted bright colors like red, green, and yellow. Children were EVERYWHERE along hte sidewalk, which is the only pavement on the island as no one has cars. Although the "festival," at the main dock in the town in front of the Health Center, consisted of one tent with a man selling bootleg CDs and little trinkets and two tents of typical Panamanian food. Still, the whole place FELT like a festival. For those familiar with it, it felt like the Jackson Park jambearee, and for those who don't, try and imagine a carnival or a state fair type atmosphere filled with all people you know and love. Also imagine children under 5 running around broken glasses and burnt down houses with no supervision, chickens EVERYWHERE, and a beautiful blue ocean with tropical flowers feet from you. It would have been suuuuch a fun place to have grown up, assuming I didn't get infections or fall through roofs like one child I saw.
Truly the atmosphere was the best part. Still, it was beautiful, too, and SO interesting. The people there talked with an extreeeemely Jamaican-sounding accent, speaking a sort of pigeon English that meant I had to ask them to speak in Spanish to me in order to understand them. I got a video of someone playing guitar for us at a restaurant, including songs like "My commanding wife want to control my life" and "La bamba," in which para bailar La Bamba you need a tiny mini-skirt (good to know). But I wish that I had gotten a video of just someone talking, so I coudl try and understand it better, practice, if you will. It sounded so like music.
Anyway, what we did there: not a lot. The general ambiance of the place was soooo laid back, as though no one had anything to do at all, other than go outside to play or eat or chat. We ate some fabulous grilled chicken and came to the conclusion that there's never a bad time for fries. We tried Panamanian rice and beans, and discovered it to be muuuuch different from the salty Costa Rican style. They're sweet, with kidney beans there, much like the Jamaican style, I hear. We decided we wanted to go to the beach, asking directions every hundred feet, for we were getting pointed to the end of the sidewalk, then through a graveyard, past a house, and into the forest. (It ended up we hiked for 20 minutes in the jungle over a big hill to get to the beach. If we'd had hiking shoes on, I'd have REALLY loved it, but though flops weren't the best it was still cool. We could hear crazy bird sounds and saw some pretty flowers and vistas and of course tons of trees/vines/tropicality.)
At one point we lathered up sunscreen and left the hotel with the intent to find a company to take us snorkelling. Then, the first person we asked to point us in the right directions told us, I'll take you. We thought he meant take us to show us where the company was, but no, he was going to take us! He lent one of us his mask and took us on a slight detour to borrow another from his friend, then took us out on his boat for the entire afternoon for $10 a piece. We went to a beach with old coral until it became too crowded with other snorkellers from a real tour. Then he just took us out to the middle of the water and we swam around, taking pictures of the coral with my underwater camera. It was soooooooo cool, even though there were only a few colors--purple, lime green, red, and orange-- to be seen on the mostly brown floor. The water was perfectly clear so that I could see straight to the bottom, and at one point A SCHOOL OF BLUE FISH swam right around me--for over a minute!!!!! I really hope I aimed my camera right then! It was hard with the mask on!
As I said, for the evenings of both days there we went over to the AquaLounge to meet up with some people we knew already. The trips over were amazing. We'd just walk down the sidewalk and ask a given person whether they had a boat or knew someone who did. It was that easy--we'd get in their own personal little boat and they'd spend 20 minutes round trip shuttling strangers to another island for $3 a person. One time we even convinced someone who'd been having dinner to take us, and he was willing to stop and look at a bit of the sunset, too! Such buena gente.
The AquaLounge itself is a pretty nice set up. It's wood and actually ON the sea, with two small docks on either side, between which is an encircled "pool" of ocean water with a ladder and diving board. This is bordered by hammocks and tables, and of course there was a bar and dance floor open to the night sky, and a swing to swing over the ocean and jump off of into a splash. The place is totally packed with people, as it's in every guide book, German, Dutch, and English ones, so it offers a club/resort/hostal feel all in once, with the best qualities of each. If only it werent' for those sunflies it would be perfect, huh? Anyway, we danced the nights away, talking to our new friends, payed the FIVE dollar each night fare back, and fell asleep exhausted but extremely happy with our choice. We got midnight grilled chicken, fries, and cole slaw both nights, too.
The thing about Panama nights, though, was that while they were completely safe (I'll get to an interesting experience in a moment), friendly, and gorgeous, THEY ARE HOT!!! Falling asleep wasn't too hard, but each morning we woke up at 5 or so in sweats, with not even the sheet on (they only dress the beds with a sheet anyway). Too hot to sleep, really, and the unheated showers didnt' even feel cold enough. Finally we just gave in to the "Paradise syndrome" of feeling completely secure in our hotel courtyard, (which was far from the sidewalk and in which we were the only guests) and just desperately took a nap with the door wide open. We were lucky and nothing was stolen. When I walked out of the hotel, too, I was always happy to be on Bastimento, but to be completely honest, I woke up hating stupid scalding Panama both days, just for the extreme heat.
Now the "interesting experience." I mentioned that the AquaLounge is right next to (maybe 2 football fields worth of ocean between) the "main" island, Bocas. The main island has streets with cars. It has a bank and places tourists can go to eat or book swims with dolphins. Still, one evening was a girl, Lisa, from Veritas,'s birthday (wow, that was tacky, sorry), and we left the Aqualounge and walked through the neighborhood behind it to find a restaurant that could handle 14 of us.
That was one of the most fascinating things of my trip. It was my first true, true encounter with a third-world community. The houses were wood, not unsual, and in usual states of disrepair, too. All of them were on stilts, with chickens and TONS of garbage below. Water that smelled dreadful rain in ditches that didn't look planned at all, all through the neighborhood, and there were 3 or four fires, completely unattended, just burning garbage along the side of the path. There was a paved part, and that led to the church, literally into its door, where 3 people knealt worshipping. On our way back, we saw more people entering, and the women all had black, sparkly, lace doily-style cloths on their heads. I don't know what sort of ceremony it was. There was a water spigget, and no glass on any of the windows. Random "soccer" fields were full of children, but consisted of remnants of tiles and sand and dirt fenced in. The path wound quite unpredictably through the houses, with no lights over it at all, narrowing and dipping with no warning. At some points we'd emerge from the two-sided bits to find the ocean with the bright lights of the tourist island on the water, and the contrast between what we saw there and the smells of where we stood facing it was so, so real. Absolutely fascinating.
Still, after eating in the swealtering, well-lit, unheated restaurant that was clearly out of price range of the area around it (it was associated with a hotel), when Sharifa and I decided we were ready to go back to the AquaLounge rather than wait for the big group (including the two boys) playing ping-pong, we experienced something even better. Though we were two small girls, clearly not from around there and clearly carrying some money and cameras, though we were young, didn't look like we could speak Spanish (a 7 year-old yelled, "Gringas! Gringas! Gringas! at us on the way to the restaurant. [Our response was, "Panamanian! Panamanian! Panamanian!"]), and obviously lost, no one took advantage of us. It really restored faith in humanity. Whether it was because they were so used to people having the same stuff as themselves that to steal just would never make sense to them, whether something is in their religion that encourages kidness to strangers, or whether they simply ARE decent people and nothing more, I don't know. I know that with my little flashlight, alone with Sharifa in just a tank-top and shorts at night, I felt more safe than I ever would have in such a situation in St Louis. We asked twice for directions back to the AquaLounge, and the second guy even just showed us the way. How refreshing. Muchas gracias.
The only other thing I have to say about that Panama trip, really, is that I'm so glad we were warned by other people to bring information about our return flight home in July to show to the Costa Rica customs. We got stopped so many times, crossing the border, and later just on the bus as a whole, and we saved ourselves money and time by having it. I really appreciate air-conditioning now, let me tell you, and proper bridge maintainance.
I'd love to go back, maybe even see the Panama Canal if there's time. It's a 10 hour bus ride from Bocas, though, which is already 16 hours away, so I'm not counting on it. I hear Panama City is a really modern city, though, and I'd love to see pretty Latin American city (San Jose, I've come to learn, is known as the "ugly duckling" of American capitals). Some day, perhaps. I don't think I'll waste a three-day weekend on it, though, when one could be spent in Nicaragua or Cuba instead.
Okay, guys. I know that was a really long post, and I'm sorry to have stopped and started so many times throughout writing it. I hope it's still cohesive. Thanks for reading!!!