Archive for July, 2008

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July 19

July 21, 2008

Lazy, lazy days, here in Bastimentos.

We yawned and propped ourselves out of bed about nine o’clock, and I pulled on pants and a shirt and walked out for a gallon of water (yes, a gallon – the stupid Imperial system found its way down here at some point in colonial history), bread rolls and half a dozen eggs. Egg rolls for breakfast – an excellent choice, we’re finding.

I should probably stop a moment to describe Old Bank. There are somewhere between one and two thousand people here, clustered along the north shore of the westernmost tip of Bastimentos, which is itself quite a large island, being about ten kilometres west to east on its longest axis. The town is defined by a long, concrete footpath about two metres wide that runs along the shore with room for one house, hospedaje, restaurant, jetty or boat-ramp on the sea side. There are no roads, and seemingly no land vehicles of any sort on the island.

The people here are relaxed. In times gone by they used to work the banana plantations at Almirante across the water, but now they mostly fish, run charmingly half-arsed tourist services, and hang out. There’s a lot of reggae, a lot of calypso, a lot of drinking and hanging out in groups talking cocky, and a lot of lazing about in hammocks. As you might expect, there’s quite a few guys looking to sell marijuana to tourists, but it’s not like Kathmandu where the taxi drivers practically spit the word “hash” at you at the end of every sentence.

Every few houses along the waterfront there’s a spot for sale, and reportedly real estate on Bastimentos is getting quite expensive now the resort developers are eyeing the island off. But I don’t know if I’d really want to move here. Although it’s lovely, and a great place to stay, I think it’d be hard for a white guy from the city to fit in over time.

Yesterday we’d expended some effort exploring the possibility of going to Cayos Zapatillas (the “Little Shoes”), two pristine islands in the Bastimentos National Marine Park, but eventually baulked at the expense, which was considerable, even if we’d assembled a larger group of people. So instead we followed our routine, and after stowing breakfast away we walked to Up In The Hill for a pot of coffee. There was a hell of a lot of rain last night. By which I mean to say, there was heavier rain than I suspect I’ve ever seen before, anywhere, and it lasted for quite a few hours. So the muddy trail to Up In The Hill was a lot muddier, and it took us five extra minutes to pick our way up there.

They had other customers, which was good to see: a family from Scotland who’d also brought up one of the kids of their hotelier. The US dudes were still hanging about, and as we took our coffee there was a fair bit of conversation to keep us entertained. The guy from Scotland (originally from London) was a bit of a character and seemed to want to prove he was more worldly than we were: he might have been, but he wasn’t proving it. Since it was our last day on Bastimentos, we bought a couple of souvenirs from their shop, sort of by way of thanking them for giving us nice coffee for three days.

On the way back down I slipped on a patch of mud, which could have been pretty disgusting if I’d failed to catch my bum an inch or two from the ground. Had to happen I suppose.

The routine continued once we were back at Sea View, and we changed into our bathers and walked over to Wizzard Beach (don’t know why the two ‘z’s, but they’re there). The track out that way was also very muddy, but with extreme caution we managed to make it without any embarrassing mishaps, and only a modicum of mud attached. Unfortunately, the conditions at the beach weren’t amazing – oddly enough, they’ve been worse every time Max has come along, and it was quite choppy today – so we spent a fairly short time there, just long enough to have a quick dip and for me to read a chapter of The Grapes of Wrath (I picked up a copy from the book exchange at our restaurant last night, and so far I’m finding it enjoyable). Then it was back through the mud and jungle, stepping gingerly around ruts on the side-weeds, and lifting our knees to avoid any over-reliance on surface friction, to Old Bank.

Max bagsed first shower, so I found myself rather muddy and sitting down the end of the pier. I slipped into the shallow, oddly viscous water of the bay, and paddled around for a minute to clean off, then knocked off another chapter or so of TGoW before we both cleaned our boots with a freshly acquired boot-brush. They were so thoroughly, wonderfully clean by the time we were done, and the action of cleaning one’s boots with feet dangling in the water off the end of a Caribbean pier is so pleasant, that we ended up feeling quite rewarded.

Refreshments were obtained, and more hammock-lolling ensued. By the time we bothered to look at the time, it was about five o’clock and an early dinner was on the cards. We could muster up the energy to step over the road and buy an improvised dinner – a sort of meat stew with Panamanian style tomato sauce and peppers, with fried bread on the side. It was awesome. Far better than our restaurant dinner last night.

Max went off to use the internet down the road, I knocked off yet another chapter, or several, of TGoW, and lazing around in bed before sleep aside, there ended another restful day. We earlier debated staying yet another day on the island – it’s only setting us back about $25 a day between us, which is pretty great – but traveller’s discipline had the victory. So tomorrow we’ll be throwing all our stuff together and busing across the Costa Rican border.

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July 18

July 21, 2008

There’s a comforting regularity sneaking into our days now.

This morning we woke late again and trekked up the jungly hill, now slimy and treacherous with mud after last night’s rain. We had a relaxing cup of coffee on the deck at “in the hills” shop, chatting with the owners’ brother and his two mates who were minding the place to give them a break. We were lucky enough to spy a red dart frog, a small cute thing, perched on the broad leaves of a nearby plant.

After coffee we came back down the hill and did some investigating to see if we could take a day trip tomorrow, but decided everything was a bit too expensive for the added happiness it would bring. Tom slid off to the beach in the afternoon whilst I lazed in a hammock, then Tom came back and we lazed in hammocks together. Come five o’clock there was an unfortunate blackout, which made the electric water pump cut out as Tom stood soaped up in the shower well, but it was back on again by half past.

Six o’clock brought dinner at Red Rooster, the naming of which is a cruel twist of fate, where we split stuffed baked potatoes, a hamburger, coleslaw and a green salad. It was the first meal we’d et out since coming here, and was very nice but quite on the expensive side. The shady American man who ran the place seemed to have imported his pricing regime along with his cuisine.

The rain came in while we were eating, and turned into a torrential downpour, so violent it made me wonder whether there was any sky left to rain. It seems to have eased now though, so I think I’ll poke my head out in the direction of the hammocks again. We’ve one more day in this island paradise, and I intend to get as much relaxing in as possible.

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July 17

July 21, 2008

It has been a surreal day, and more than once I’ve felt the world becoming vaguely cinematic, as if I’m locked into a sequence of stills, pans and zooms somewhat outside my control, and script devices are dogging my steps.

We woke up late after an excellent night’s sleep. “Damn fine sleep!” as Agent Cooper would put it. After lolling for longer than we should’ve, in all probability, we emerged into the communal kitchen around nine-thirty to discover one or more of our cohabitants had drunk most of our orange juice, and all of our bottled water, and had eaten one of our bread rolls. We were mildly incensed by this, because when you’re eating on a budget orange juice is one of the day’s highlights.

After a brief deliberation, we wrote a curt note saying “Tienes hambre? No robas nuestras comidas y bebendas – tenemos hambre tambien!” and stuck it to the fridge. Which was possibly a bad idea, as it seemed to cause a commotion amongst the locals who actually live here – they came and knocked on our door, insisting it was probably someone from “off the street” who’d nicked our stuff, and getting a bit defensive. Thinking about it, our note was a bit stiff, but we don’t know Spanish well enough to get more nuanced. I have a feeling the locals are a bit used to being accused of this and that by the Latinos and tourists, so we must have struck a bit of a nerve. Either way, no lasting damage seems to have been done.

We made fried egg rolls for breakfast – which were awesome – and set out equipped for the beach, and for the muddy walk to get there, in bathers and hiking boots. Yesterday we’d noticed a number of handpainted signs marking the way to an organic farm called “Up In The Hill” which mentioned coffee, so we were heading there en route to Playa Primera.

The farm / shop was supposed to be a fifteen minute walk from town, but it was a real estate agent’s fifteen minutes, more like twenty when you accounted for avoiding wrong turns and picking your way around small patches of mud. Still not too far! When we arrived, it felt a bit like we were interrupting something – under a raw timber patio attached to a rustic timber house, three young dudes were seated around a coffee table and a larger table, obviously quite at home, and in conversation with a heavily pregnant woman. It was immediately clear that we were the first customers of the day.

The guys turned out to be Americans travelling with intent in the area – one of them had bought land on Isla Bastimento and was planning to start the locale’s first microbrewery. Given the local beers are all watery lagers, it sounded like a pretty good idea to me, provided he can sell his product at a reasonable price.

Note to beer-geeks: I don’t know much about beer in particular – I enjoy it, but I don’t study it – but I can inform you quite reliably that the “standard” beer of almost every nation we’ve visited on this trip is a disappointing, weak watery lager. The only exception is Bhutan, where the standard beer is 9% alcohol, tastes plain weird, and comes in 650 mL bottles.

The dudes and the pregnant woman, whose name was Janette and who was one of the proprietors of the farm / shop, were on their way down the hill to the beach to surf with a kid and a dog in tow, so we were left to consume coffee and treats. Max ordered a ridiculously high quality brownie and pineapple sorbet combination, whereas I went for the “manly” option of a pot of black organic coffee from a French press.

The coffee was also of excellent quality. “Damn fine coffee!” – thanks Coop. While we thoroughly enjoyed what was on offer, we had an interesting conversation with Javier, Janette’s husband. He was a wiry, very strong looking Latino guy who spoke English with a thick accent. He was Argentinian but had been living on Bastimento for fifteen years, having come up here for the surf and the warm water. When he realised he wanted to stay here and surf for the rest of his life, he bought a lot on the island, built the house we were sitting in with his own hands, and started a farm, teaching himself everything about agriculture more or less from scratch. The place now produces cacao, pineapples, jackfruit, and all manner of other stuff, including homeopathic remedies, insect repellent and handicrafts.

(When you meet someone who has completely transformed themselves in order to pursue a consuming passion, and has achieved all manner of thoroughly difficult things as a consequence, it’s impressive. I was thinking “hmm, I wonder why I’ve been working as a computer programmer in Canberra?” — Javier seemed like that sort of guy. Of course, there’s always more to it than that.)

Javier gave us a pocket map indicating the trail down to the beach from the shop, and then the fun began. I’d walked the ordinary muddy trail from Old Bank to the beach yesterday, and assumed this wouldn’t be much trickier. The trail, however, was much less well-worn, and so we were picking our way around more mud. We really started wondering what we were getting ourselves into almost immediately once Max had put a foot ankle-deep in mud, completely submerging her boot.

We were walking through long grass from one orange-painted stick to another, keeping an eye out for such landmarks as “grassy bit”, “lone palm tree” and “fence”, as marked on the pocket map. Navigation was easy enough until we reached “fence”, and thought for a minute before finally squeezing between two strands of barbed wire to pass it. That was surprisingly easy. What wasn’t was working out what to do on the other side.

We set out in a vaguely “central” direction through lengthening grass and thickening mud, and found something that looked like a trail, but was obviously mainly frequented by cows. Continuing on nonetheless, we hit some jungle and ran out of trail. But by this stage we could hear the waves hitting the beach and surely it couldn’t be much further! On the one hand was a cow-trail leading down some seriously steep and muddy inclnes. On the other, a bridle-path that turned into impenetrable undergrowth after six metres. We were blocked.

Retracing our steps, I tried another trail, that led promisingly down into a valley in the direction the ocean-sounds were coming from. This trail was wider and better-worn for some distance, so I left Max to wait and went to see how far I could get. I’d walked for about five minutes when the “proper trail” abruptly ended and broke off in three different directions, all of them through long, sharp pampas grass intermingled with a pestiferous species of thorny creeper that was becoming increasingly prevalent as I persisted.

After I’d stomped, hacked and picked my way through this mess for another three or four minutes, with the ground forever softening under my feet, strange noises in the undergrowth, and shallow cuts appearing on my hands, arms and ankles, I realised that I wasn’t entirely sure where I was and didn’t really want to go any further.

I tried to take a shortcut back to the “proper trail” I’d been on before along a bearing that looked like it’d be easier than the way I’d come down. This proved to be a disaster, as the pampas grass was even thicker and sharper, and the mud softer. At one point both my ankles sank into deep, soft mud and I began to wonder if I was going to get stuck and die alone, starving like one of those poor enmired cows we’d seen in the Gobi. That’s only half-serious, but I was fearing mildly for my health, my sense of direction, my sanity and my pleasant trip to the beach. Now that I was humiliatingly covered in mud and cuts, and sweating like an outsized collared peccary, would we have to retreat to Old Bank and go around the normal way, passing hordes of other tourists who would stop, and point and laugh at me?

With a final effort I regained the walkable part of the trail, and clambered back to where I’d left Max, and we returned together to “fence”. After I’d made a false start down another wrong trail, Max turned to me with some exasperation and said “Can I have a look at the map?”. Having examined it for three seconds, she said “It looks like we’re supposed to take a right after we get through the fence.”

We walked ten metres to the right, and suddenly stretched out before us as if paved with gold, was the last section of the old, trusty, normal road to the beach. Which had been there all along, just behind the crest of a tiny hill to our right. Quite embarrassing, that.

Five minutes later we were at the beach, and cleaning the mud off our boots in the shallows. Conditions were much as they’d been the day before – I can’t think of a better way to describe this beach than that it reminds me of some of the ones back home, it’s an Australian type of beach. Plenty of surf, quite strong currents pulling up and down the breaks, and a broad expanse of soft sand, although the sand is a bit yellower than anything I can recall in Western Australia. As was the case yesterday, there were about two dozen other beachgoers down there, including the people from “Up In The Hill” we’d talked to earlier.

Once we’d both had a swim and had been loafing on our towels for about ten minutes, an interesting thing happened. One of the other tourists, a guy in red swimming trunks with bottle-blond hair, walked down the beach to us and said “Do you speak English?”. He told us that someone had told him they’d seen a dead body in the water, or possibly a guy drowning or being swept out to sea, at the other end of the beach. There were no lifeguards of course. He’d been telling everyone else he passed as he walked down, and they’d all gotten out of the water and were now gazing anxiously at the sea where the incident was supposed to have happened, which must have been a few hundred metres away I suppose.

I don’t think I’ve ever been at beach during a drowning or a death. I had no idea how to react, and it seemed pretty clear that no one else knew what to do either. There was an overwhelming “trouble in Paradise” feeling about the place all of a sudden, and after we’d hacked our way through all that jungle before, I now felt like I was in a watered-down version of “The Beach”. To put it simply, the type of people who were down there – people like me – are used to having responsible people around to deal with situations like these, and when we don’t, that vacuum of authority can be felt like an ache.

I didn’t want to get back into the water, as the idea of swimming where someone had just died felt weird. I walked up to Janette from “Up In The Hill”, who’d also had the news from bottle-blond / red-swimming-trunks, as I thought that since she lived on Bastimento, she might know what to do. She said someone would probably tell the guys at the police post in Old Bank, but that no one would be rushing anywhere if they thought someone was “already dead”. She mentioned that a few other people have drowned at Playa Primera over the years. We’d also heard beforehand that it was a fairly dangerous place to swim, but to be honest when I’d been swimming just earlier, it hadn’t seemed too bad. Shallow a long way out, and a fairly strong undertow, but nothing unusual.

News and opinions rippled up and down the beach uncertainly for a while after that. I considered taking it upon myself to go back to Old Bank and “tell the cops”, then discarded the idea. I don’t really know how to say “someone said that someone might be dead or drowning at Playa Primera” convincingly in Spanish, so I was worried they’d think I was just full of shit. Some of the guys with surfboards paddled up to the spot where the guy had been seen, and looked about for him in the water without any luck. After that we saw a speedboat arrive – someone must have told someone – and burn up and down trying to spot anything.

Eventually I got back in for one more quick dip and then Max and I dried off, laced our filthy boots on, picked up our stuff and walked back to town. The ordinary path to Old Bank was reassuringly straightforward. Max, who hadn’t walked it before, was overjoyed by its simplicity and shortness relative to our earlier trials. When we arrived at Hospedaje Sea View the shower I took restored the feeling of freshness I’d had leaving the water at the beach.

It was about three o’clock by this point, so we bought some refreshments from the mini-super and spent the next two or three hours lounging in hammocks at the end of the hospedaje’s jetty, like the lotus-eaters we are. I knocked off the last of the Murakami anthology. After twenty or so short stories, I’d have to say his peculiar magic was getting e’er so slightly hackneyed, but it was still a great collection. Dinner, which we took in the early evening before sunset, was more pork and vegetable burritos, and as we returned to loafing, the evening rain rappeared, pouring down all around our thatched hammock-shelter, and dripping through it in places, and roughening the otherwise glassy waters of the Old Bank Bay. The sounds of music and business around us were drowned out leaving us in an environment that felt oddly womb-like.

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July 16

July 21, 2008

Thanks to a series of staggered parties in our barn/ tent camp/ hippie commune last night, I woke up this morning rather grumpy and having had very little sleep. Deciding to take my frustration out on Bocas del Toro, I convinced Tom that we’d be better off out of the tourist maze on Isla Bastimentos, a ten minute boat ride off shore.

After a stroll through town and a quick breakfast, we packed our bags, dismantled our tent and were on our way. Eleven o’clock found us on Bastimentos, a charming little island that has a much more sensible tourist:resident ratio, brightly painted wooden houses along the waterfront, and a wide main footpath instead of a road. As if some sort of omen, the overcast sky gave way to intense sunshine the second we set foot on the shore.

We wandered along looking for a particular hostel, but once we’d found it suffered from “Lonely Planet Syndrome” — prices inflated by publicity — we turned our attentions elsewhere and ended up at the Sea View Hospedaje, where we have a very clean turquoise-coloured double room and (for the first time in long time) a private bathroom. There’s also a communal sitting area and kitchen under a large verhanda, and a boardwalk over the sea to two pavilions strung with hammocks. Considering this only costs $4 a night more than our tent-crammed mezzanine and lack of running water last night, I can’t help but feel we made the right decision.

Tom decided to fill the afternoon with a trip to the nearest beach, whilst I whiled away the time in a hammock with a pencil and paper, watching the boats come and go and the people go about their things. Somewhere, a guy with a guitar did renditions of the best reggae hits of the nineties (a-lah-lah-lah-lah-long being the only one I can put a name to). Before I noticed, it was ten past four and Tom’s decidedly sunburnt head was poking of over the top of my hammock, telling tales of smooth sand, clean water, jungle trails and Carribean cemeteries. His tales were definitely tempting enough to put the beach on our list again tomorrow.

We cooked an inexpert dinner of chilli from a can mixed with vegetbles from a can and plastic cheese, which we then threw in tortillas and topped with lettuce. Unfortunately, the kitchen was a little out of our comfort zone, and in order to do so we had to be given some instructive tutorials from two nice motherly-types on such things as how to light the industrial-strength camping stove with a lighter without setting fire to your hand, and how to open a can with the thirty-centimetre long blade of a sharpened kitchen knife. Most of the residents of the island are of West Indian descent and speak a language called Guari Guari, a mashed-up Spanish English Creole, so thankfully there’s a lot more English about the place with which to teach us to cook Carribean-style.

Although I was under the impression we only had three nights left in Panama, a quick check of the diary proved we actually have five- which we plan to spend saving money by swimming at the beach all morning and lazing in hammocks all afternoon at our ten-dollar-a-night paradise. Though there were a few bright pink lightning strikes behind the clouds at dusk, the rain failed to come in this afternoon, so I have high hopes for the island being enveloped by a freakish micro-climate devoid of the rainstorms that have been robbing us of the afternoons thus far in the country.

But for now, I think, an early night to prepare for a long, relaxing day tomorrow.

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July 15

July 21, 2008

We gave ourselves just enough time to pack at the lazy pace to which we’ve become accustomed before the hotel water-taxi was due to leave at nine o’clock. No time for breakfast, as we’d decided to eat “properly” when we got to David.

It was lovely poking my head out the door of our bathroom-less cabana (which had a few ants, and was overall nothing special) and seeing the water between Boca Brava and the mainland shimmering in the subdued light of morning, through the copse of jungly vegetation growing down the hill in front of us.

We were on the water-taxi with some continental European tourists – Germans I think, three girls – and a family of five from Nottingham, and after the short hop across the water, jammed into a pickup with the lot of them, although once we reached Horconcitos, the Euros transferred to a sedan. By about ten o’clock, we were waiting for a bus at the Horconcitos turnoff on the Interamericanas. Which arrived shortly thereafter.

On the bus I had a brief conversation about travel, fuel prices, and the relative costs of things “back home” with the Nottinghamese father figure, a nice guy who seemed to have done a fair bit of travelling in these parts at different stages of his life, and had also been to Perth in the early nineties, which he generously described as “having nice beaches”.

We arrived at the hectic David bus terminal, wandered up and down looking for a boleteria, got touted by Bocas del Toro bus operators, realised there wasn’t a boleteria, caved to the Bocas bus guys, dropped our packs on board the next departing vehicle and snagged breakfast at a hole in the wall place next to the bus stop. Breakfast was a third of a chicken nicely barbecued, two chorizos, and two rather stale hojaldres. Tasted pretty damn good on no breakfast and a light meal the night before, however.

The bus was more “local” than our Panama – David ride had been, with frequent stops, a lot of passengers mounting and dismounting over short distances, and a pretty convivial vibe. Loud Latin music played constantly … my tolerance for which dies after about an hour, especially with the obnoxious DJs cracking jokes in Spanish over the top of every track, but hey it ain’t that bad. I felt a little discontented when the hefty bus-man went to sleep on my shoulder for a few minutes. The bus-man was big, and all arms and legs stepping on people and leaning into people, but a decent guy – at one point, he gave me an orange right out of the goodness of his heart. What with Murakami short stories (we picked up Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman at Heathrow) and Max’s mp3 player, it ended up being a pretty easy ride.

We arrived in Changuinola about four-thirty, and transferred to a taxi to the waterfront with half a dozen other tourists, and thence to a water-taxi to Bocas del Toro, with the same crew. At final count we’d used six means of transportation during the day which in Panamanian terms had burned a bit of a hole in our pocket.

Bocas is touristy. They really amp up the “Carribean” thing here, so instead of Latino music nearly every venue is spinning the same CD of Marley’s greatest hits, which is actually very relaxing. Can’t go too far wrong with Bob Marley. The bars run touts who approach you with tickets for “free shots” and “tequila 4 the girls” as you walk up the street, and they all have happy hours in the early evening. Every building that isn’t a bar or a mini-super (what they call delicatessens here, somewhat contrarily) is a hospedaje. I thinkit’s a taste of what’s to come in Costa Rica, reportedly Central America’s most tourist-ridden destination as it’s half-owned by Californians.

We wandered past a few budget hostels mindful of expenditure, and eventually settled on something different – an ultra-basic venue called “The Spot” where you can pitch your tent indoors for very little. So we have our tent pitched in the attic at The Spot for $6 a night, which is pretty neat actually, compared to a crappy dorm-room. The doorman at The Spot is William, a muscular black guy who intersperses greeting new arrivals with waxing his surfboard and working out on a punching bag. There are three brand new kittens roaming the floor, and a semi-catatonic mastiff who couldn’t care about any of it. It seems like a cool place, if rather primitive even by our standards – no reliable running water, for example.

After settling in, we took a walk out of town to two of the nearby beaches, working out where we’d head tomorrow, which is going to be another lazy, cheap day. Playa de Istmito was a bit trash-laden, but Playa Big Creek, further along, looked pretty decent. Chow mein de carne followed at a roadside restaurant, and then we picked up a bottle of sangria at the nearest mini-super and shared it over table at The Spot. And now here I am in our tent, typing away as TV sounds emanate from below the planks of the attic, and other tourists mosey up and down.

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July 14

July 21, 2008

We started the day off with a late wake-up and a breakfast of eggs, sausage and hojaldres before departing on our very strenuous day- which involved a short trudge through the slippery jungle to a beach, accompanied by the hostel’s dog. The first beach we came across was a little on the muddy side, so we continued around he island until we found a strip of sand edged with smooth rocks and butting up against the jungle. The humid walk had made us a bit sweaty, so the first thing we did was scare off the hundreds of miniature crabs scuttling at our feet by striding into the water.

The beach had some very unusual, and not altogether pleasant, currents- the water at the shore was very hot (above body temperature) and maintained a ruler’s length of heat at the surface as the water got deeper. The temperature at the sandy bottom was also hot, but in the middle we’d occasionally get buffeted by an unnatural icy swirl. Thinking about the science of convection (not to mention the possibility of ice-breathing sea monsters) was getting me down, so I left the water and perched under a tree to read a kids’ book I’d borrowed from the hostel.

The next two-and-a-half hours were spent reading, sunning ourselves, watching the dog investigate, and nibbling on the cheese-, ham- and vege-filled hojaldres we’d taken with us for lunch. We then started the walk back by a much shorter route starting at a trailhead we’d seen two girls emerge from earlier, convincing the dog to come with us (though he did let out a bit of a whine and have to hide his favourite beach toy back under a log first). I almost stepped on a miniscule snake on the way back, but it didn’t freak me out quite so much as usual as it was maybe ten centremetres long and red-and-black striped with a bright yellow head. Quite comical thing, really.

A little further down the trail, after the dog had run off to bark at something, we were stopped by the ominous rustling of trees and were treated to the sight of a family of spider monkeys making their way across the canopy. An adult went through first, and a minute later was followed by an incredibly cute baby, which hurried to catch up then flung itself up onto its mum’s back.

And that’s pretty much it, really. We spent the rest of the day sitting out on the terrace of the hostel, reading, sipping drinks and admiring the spectacular two-sided view of the chain of islands from above. Later, we climbed the stairs to the viewing tower where we ordered dinner and watched a thunderstorm roll in, only to get chased back down stairs again by the wind as it came screaming in the open sides of platform.

It’s a hard life.

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July 13

July 21, 2008

So. We were running late from the moment we awoke in our draughty garret at Zuly’s with a fresh haul of mosquito bites from the night before. Max had inadvertently forgotten to set her Dick Tracy watch alarm, but her eyes had fortunately snapped open only ten minutes later than we’d originally intended.

We jammed all our stuff back into our bags (it’s a pretty easy routine once you stop trying to pack “properly”) and descended the two flights of stairs to the common room, where the awesome doorman Germain was already eating breakfast and had a pot of filter coffee on the drip. Tortillas were scarfed at high velocity, and then we had our coffees on the balcony and heard an interesting tale, in a mish-mash of good Spanish and bad English, from Germain.

At around six o’clock in the morning a strange-looking Irishman – “muy etrano, muchos … como se dice – bites on face” — had arrived at the security gate and rung the intercom bell, and Germain had gone down to let him in. He’d demanded a bed, and a coffee, as gruffly as can be imagined: “Coffee! Bed!”. Germain had taken him around before realising, not to put it too finely, that Zuly’s could probably do without this guy. (Not before trying the door on our room, which was thankfully, somewhat selfishly, locked). He’d explained to the crank that there weren’t any beds, at which point the guy had repeated “Coffee! Bed!” several times, while thumping nearby tables and walls, stalking around and muttering obscenities. Germain had finally gotten him out the security door with threats to call the police, and he’d stood in the courtyard and thrown missiles – broken bottles and the like – at the outside of the building for a few minutes (I could now recall hearing the sound of breaking glass outside in the early morning).

Strange tale, anyway. Some tourists really start to lose it over time.

We bid farewell to Germain, walked down the road with our packs, and hailed the first taxi we could find, and got ourselves to Albrook terminal, Panama City’s fairly new main bus interchange. Buying a ticket to David, eight hours’ bus ride away to the west, was a pretty easy matter, and we were in the departure lounge looking rosy for an early, eight-thirty getaway when Max suddenly realised she’d left her hiking boots at Zuly’s.

While she rushed back to hail another taxi and make the forty minute round trip for her boots, I waited, tranquilo, with our big bags and munched on a couple of fried corn cakes. After about thirty-five minutes an anxious bus-lady arrived and demanded I board our bus, which was full up and ready to go. I explained Max’s absence, and she promptly put two other passengers on the bus and it headed off. Moments later, Max returned.

Although several other buses to David left in the next couple of hours, we needed the slow one that stops in Horconcitos, a small town slightly to the east of the city, from which the Isla Boca de Brava can be accessed by 4WD taxi. So it was past ten-thirty before we were finally able to cash our tickets in for a trip, after a slightly anxious wait.

The bus was comfortable. A bit old and tatty, but with nice, soft reclining chairs and good air-con. Sure, the air-con did, occasionally, drip on us both, but we can forgive that type of thing these days. One thing that does bug me is the way every long-haul bus has TVs installed, but they almost never turn them on, and they’re just left to take up headspace and obsolesce.

We travelled through a predominantly flat, green, lush and agricultural landscape for several hours, with occasional brief stops to embark and disembark passengers, most of whom were Panamanians. In front of us, a chunky Latino girl was helping her elderly father, who seemed a bit out of it, to make the trip, shepherding carefully on and off the bus, and up and down to the onboard toilet at the back. A European couple with a gaggle of three children aged somewhere between four and ten had us surrounded on three sides, and we endured a fair bit of unconsidered toe-poking from the kids behind us.

At a place called Penomene we stopped for a cafeteria lunch – arroz frito con carne guisado (fried rice with stewed meat) and jugo de naranja (orange juice). Our Spanish vocab is steadily improving, and I now feel perfectly confident about trivialities like ordering food, usually making myself heard in the noisy eateries is more difficult than actually being understood. Grammar, and in particular verb endings for the various verb-forms and tenses, is going to take a lot longer to get the hang of.

We got talking to the Euro-couple – Dutch, as it turned out – and discovered the husband was an academic who’d been doing some sort of research at a remote “Indian” (i.e., indigenous) community only accessible by a seven hour boat ride from Bocas del Toro. The whole family had gone with him and it sounded, from the way his wife was describing it, like it had been a life-changing experience. Unfortunately, we were herded back into the bus before we could get any more details. Travel seems to work in this way: the more “interesting” or obscure the locales you visit, the more obscure and interesting the other travellers you meet become. In Turkey, the other tourists are, on par, quite dull. But in Bhutan, say, not so much! I exclude us from any such metric of interestingness, of course.

Two or three hours later, after the late rains had sprung up, we jumped off the bus at the Horconcitos turn-off, pulled our raincovers over our packs, and spent a few minutes standing indecisively in the rain before heading for a group of people, evidently tourists, who were also waiting at the crossroads. Unsurprisingly, they were headed the same way we were – the one and only hostel on the Isla Boca de Brava, which is mentioned in the guidebook. A regular taxi came by to canvas us, and ended up calling a 4WD taxi to take us on to Boca Chica, the fishing village which sits opposite the island.

We waited in the rain under a small nearby shelter, our fellow tourists Europeans, a young couple with a small baby and an established family, two parents, two children. One of the older kids, a girl, had a horrific bruise on her face which her father hastily explained had been caused by a collision with a surfboard. It looked as if someone had beaten her brutally with a baseball bat, the poor devil.

Our taxi arrived, a shiny, brand-new yellow Toyota Hilux ute with five seats in the cab. The driver, with some sense of resignation, loaded our bags into the tray and then the nine of us crammed into the four passenger seats. Max sat across my knees in the front seat, and in the back the four other adults crammed themselves across the bench seat, with the three kids on their laps. Conditions were cramped, to say the least, but the ventilation was excellent and the ride smooth, and it all took nothing like the one hour hinted at in the guide, maybe only twenty minutes in total.
The road down to the boat-ramp at Boca Chica was lined with billboards advertising plots of land for sale by the water, which doesn’t really surprise me. We’re discovering Panama has become a popular retirement destination for the USA – it’s the Florida outside the US. Land is cheap and abundant, and most of the nice tourist spots will probably soon be ruined by villas. That’s apparently what’s happened to Boquete, a famous spot in the hills near David that we’d decided to pass by because of the season. And when I say land is cheap, I mean that it goes for about $40 or less per square metre on the tropical islands around here.

The island of Boca Brava runs parallel to the coast near Boca Chica at a distance of around one hundred metres or less, so the waterway between them isn’t much different from a tidal inlet. It was a short hop by water-taxi to the pier at the Ristorante y Cabanas de Boca de Brava, the one and only hotel on the island. We ascended a flight of tiled steps to the reception / bar, a gaudy affair in a beautiful, multi-level, open-sided common area with a view over the surrounding islands, large and small.

After dispensing with the formalities and taking a few minutes to erase the cares of travel in our new cheap-arse digs (well, the cheapest they had), we waited until the kitchen closed before wandering back to the bar for a drink. We promptly ran into two girls travelling together that we’d met at Zuly’s two nights beforehand, further reinforcing the predictability of everything under the sun. We chatted with them about travel and careers – to be perfectly honest, it’s a conversation I could almost pre-record at the moment — over a beer and a cocktail, before we all turned in. On our way back to our room we overheard these guys having a heated game of Yahtzee! in the adjacent room. It’s a strange game to overhear, as it sounds so utterly nonsensical because the positions and strategies are simply numbers on the dice. Not that I know how to play it. But this quirky inadvertent eavesdropping on Yahtzee! was the faintly comical coda to a long day of bus, taxi and boat rides.